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September 12, 2020 T

 

In my drasha last Shabbat I explained Rebbe Nachman’s interpretation of עוד מעט ואין רשע  just a little more and then there will be no more wicked people (Psalm 37:10)  All we have to do is find the מעט טוב—a little good within ourselves; one good thing about us, one good thing we did, and on that one thing we can lay the conviction that we are by nature good. This principle must be applied to others as well as to ourselves, because when we judge ourselves harshly, we will also judge others harshly and we end up perpetuating a culture of blame and guilt. This culture causes untold suffering for humanity and we must liberate ourselves from its grip.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570), in his famous work The Palm of Devorah, offers a technique which uses the same principle described by Reb Nachman. In this holy month of Elul, we must forgive those who have wronged us, even when those people do not ask for forgiveness. This is a formidable task in many cases. Rabbi Cordovero says we must find one good thing that person does and then say, “It is enough that they do that. The example he uses is a person’s wife, in which case one should say, “It is enough that they take care of our children and our home.” Of course, this is a highly genderized statement, but it holds true in many cases. If we find the good in others, we will evoke in ourselves empathy, compassion and forgiveness. These are the essential qualities to cultivate in this lifetime, especially during Elul.

Whether it is an individual, a community, or an organization that requires your forgiveness, look to find the good within them. On this note, we all know that the High Holidays arouse tension between individuals and synagogues, so I hope you find the COVID Covenant for synagogues and communities, emailed earlier this week, to be helpful and uplifting.

 

 

 

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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September 5, 2020 T

 

“One who says I will sin and then repent, his Yom Kippur does not atone for him.”—Mishna Yoma 8.

Many of us approach Yom Kippur as the one day to be good, the one day to be Jewish, the one day to think about our actions. Consequently, many of us are “stuck” in our spiritual and personal growth. We have a vision of the person we want to be and could be; whether we want to exercise more, be more involved Jewishly, or spend more time with family. We often don’t get there because we don’t take the hard look at our choices in real time, only in post-game analysis. Monday morning quarterbacks don’t win the Superbowl.

This month of Elul, and this very moment is an opportunity to perform chesbon nefesh, a personal accounting of one’s self and one’s actions. Real teshuva means a change in behaviour; no one is asked to be perfect. You can’t change the things that our beyond your knowledge, but you can search and dig a little deeper into yourself and ask the questions: “How could I be kinder?” “How could I be more righteous?”

On Sept 12 we are having a Havadala and Slichot service. This is a perfect way to get in gear as we move inexorably closer to Yom Tov. Preparation is essential in all things. Yom Kippur works best when you spend these next few weeks thinking about yourself, your thoughts, your words, your actions, your relationship to self, family, world and
G-d.

 

 

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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August 29, 2020 T

 

Have hope in G-d, shore up your heart with courage and have hope in G-d. This closing line of Psalm 27 could not be more appropriate for our time.  In the month of Elul we read this Psalm twice a daily—at the end of morning and evening prayers. Why? With the High Holidays approaching we know that the time of spiritual reckoning is upon us; we must once again account for the things we have thought, said and done over the past year. This is never easy; it takes great courage to admit wrongdoing. Beyond this, it is generally a stressful time of year. In ancient times (and presently) the harvest time was a time of great uncertainty, individual and societal prosperity depended on a good harvest, an outcome not yet known as we approach Rosh Hashanah. The beginning of the school year—while exciting and often positive—is also a stressful time for parents, teachers, and students. Certainly, Jewish communal organizations like synagogues are busy, stressful places around this time of year. Add to this the stresses and uncertainties posed by the novel coronavirus and you have yourself a recipe for a hot mess.

By reciting Psalm 27 twice daily we remind ourselves that everything will be all right in the end. G-d has our back continuously and will never abandon us. We remind ourselves to have courage and to look to G-d as a source of hope. The word hope is used as a verb—קוה,  the root of this verb is קו which is a straight line. Imagine a straight line that runs up your spine and infinitely upward (or outward) towards G-d. Hope, in Hebrew, is more than a wish, it is an action, a connection.

In Terminator: Genisys, the hero Sarah Connor helps a little boy who is in danger and is paralyzed with fear. She takes his hand and traces her finger up his palm and up his middle finger. She says, "All you need to do is go in a straight line and don’t look back. That little boy grows up to become a hero for all of humanity.

To hope—קוה—is to form that straight line between you and G-d. Keep that straight line in your thoughts and in your prayers.

 

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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August 22, 2020 T

 

Tonight (Thursday) begins Rosh Hodesh Elul, the last month of Jewish year. During the next 28 days we are called upon to begin looking within ourselves, to examine our actions, to consider what changes need to take place. How can we become the best possible versions of ourselves?

 

Elul is a time of awakening, increased illumination and elevation, a time when we become closer and closer to our spiritual essence and to the G-dliness within us. We do not depart from our Earthly realm to reach Heaven. Instead G-d comes more into our own world—not that G-d is ever absent, but the presence is felt more acutely now. The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Schneur Zalman of Liadi says of this phenomenon “The King is in the field”, meaning the field---our everyday life and not in the palace, which is lofty and distant. Our energy and excitement grows incrementally each day until we come on Rosh Hashanah, face to face with our Creator.

 

In order to really experience Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in order to truly change ourselves for the better, it’s critical that we undertake Cheshbon Nefesh, spiritual self-accounting in these next 28 days. Don’t let Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur be the first moment you consider your soul. The work begins now. 

 

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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August 15, 2020 T

 

This is an exciting moment for us. In a short time from now, we will be re-entering our sanctuary IN PERSON for the first time in five months. Everything still feels surreal, but we are extremely grateful to G-d and to our hardworking staff that we can now slowly begin reclaiming what we have been missing.

Many of you have been tuning in (70 people per week on average) to our Zoom Shabbat services, while some of you may not have been to a Beit Rayim service since March 21st. Either way, you will find that next Shabbat morning will be VERY different from how we’ve done services in the past. The saving of lives is paramount in Jewish Law and I have made these changes to our minhag in order to accommodate public health guidelines and recommendations in order toprovide the safest possible prayer environment for our community.

What to expect:

1. The service will be shortened to 90 minutes (give or take); shortening the length of exposure reduces the risk of transmission.

2. The Cantor will lead prayers with Nusach rather than congregational melodies we are used to. Congregants are discouraged from singing loudly. This is because singing produces more droplets which become aerosolized and elevate the risk of transmission.

3. To accommodate Item 1, Psukei D’Zimra will be truncated, beginning at Nishmat Kol Chai. Please consult with me as to how to fulfill your obligation of Psukei D’Zimra individually beforehand. Kaddish D’Rabbanan and an additional Mourners Kaddish will take place at the end of the service

4. Heiche Kedusha (first three blessings aloud followed by silent prayer, no repetition) for both Shacharit and Musaf.

5. The Torah will not be paraded around the sanctuary. Only the Torah Reader is permitted to touch the Sefer Torah.

6. There will be one Torah Reader only. The Torah Reader will be the only person to stand at the Shulkhan, honourees—if present—will stand at their seats. If honourees are watching on Zoom, the Torah Reader will recite the blessings on their behalf.

7. Haftarah, with Blessings to be recited from the seat of the honouree.  

8. No food can be served in the Sanctuary. Congregants are required to make Kiddush for their households.

9. In order to observe physical distancing we are unfortunately limited to 14 people per week (not including staff, clergy and volunteers) on a first-come first-serve basis. In order to attend, visit www.beitrayim.org and register. Please read all of the rules and requirements before doing so.

Some of you may be discouraged and confused about these changes. It is not easy for me either, but these changes are necessary to ensure our collective safety and health. Please reach out to me rabbic@beitrayim.org to discuss your thoughts.

Five months ago we adjusted to Shabbat morning Zoom services from home, something no one thought imaginable, and we grew to love it. In time, this new format too will become routine and familiar. Torah has adapted drastically over its 3000 year history. Jewish communities in 2020 are now vanguard of religious evolution. We can and we will succeed in restoring our place of worship to its former glory.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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August 8, 2020 T

 

Yesterday was Tu B’Av (טו באב the 15th of Av). Every day in the Jewish calendar has its own mazal, a unique energy that flows through the universe. The mazal of Tu B’Av, the Gemara tells us, is so powerful and joyful that it is seconded only by Yom Kippur. In the times of the Beit HaMikdash, on Tu B’Av, all the unmarried women would borrow white clothes from one another (so that no one could tell who was from a rich family and who wasn’t) and they would go out into the fields to be courted by young men. This has earned Tu B’Av its designation as the ‘Jewish Valentine’s day’. Chloe and I chose to get married in the early evening on the 14th of Av (Yad B’Av, יד באב ) so that we would be partying into Tu B’Av, and so that we could have a Sheva Brachot meal on Tu B’Av, which was a Friday. This year we were grateful to celebrate five years while I officiated a wedding. Chloe came along and it became our first date-night since the pandemic began. There have sadly been so many funerals in our community in the last four months, and many weddings have been postponed due to COVID-19. Because of this, it’s a blessing that we could be so elevated in our joy together.

By now most of us have seen the gruesome images of the explosion that took place in the port of Beirut this week. The destruction was devastating; dozens of people killed, hundreds injured, and thousands left homeless. Despite the fact that Lebanon is officially an enemy state to Israel, and that their government willingly aids Hezbollah, we are forbidden from relishing in their suffering. Most Lebanese resent both their government and Hezbollah; they are prisoners there. We are instead commanded to have empathy and compassion for them as human beings and as descendants of our father, Avraham. As I placed the glass before the groom under the chuppah I remarked that the breaking of the glass does not only represent the destruction of the Temple and our connection to Jerusalem, but also our recognition of the suffering and brokenness of  our world. Even on the happiest day our lives, our wedding day, we are commanded to recognize that brokenness, not to bring us down, but so that we can shine our joy outwards in all four directions, so that our joy spills over onto those who are suffering, to dedicate our joy and our positive energy to healing.

Shabbat Shalom,

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July 18, 2020 T

 

After a two week heat-wave, I was grateful today to leave on my morning run and find the air cool, refreshing and pleasant. I love the heat, but there is only so much the body can take; at a certain point, it's unsafe. I smiled as the breeze hit me. I felt the clouds above shielding me from the deadly radiation of the Sun. This called to mind theענני הכבוד, the cloud that led the Israelites through the desert. This week we conclude Bamidbar the Book of the Wilderness and the Bewilderment. The cloud will not be there next week when we open Dvarim, we'll have arrived at the East bank of the Jordan River. The journey is coming to an end; the cloud will ascend from us.

Our journey through the desert of 2020 has been rough. The Israelites saw and learned things they did not want to. We have too. Then and now it was a traumatic experience, but it was meaningful and necessary for us to learn those lessons of the bewilderment. Looking back, we must not only see the negative; we must not only see the misfortune and tragedy, the mistakes, the damage. We must look back and see that G-d was there with us, guiding us, protecting us the whole time. We survived. We are here now.

There is reason to be thankful. Let us enter this Promised Land upright and hopeful for the future.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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July 11, 2020 T

 

In a moment of chaos and confusion, a deadly outbreak wrought by G-d, and a forboding union between Israelite and Midianite nobles which Moses and Aaron are seemingly powerless to stop, one man rises and takes matters into his own hands. Pinchas does the dirty, unpleasant work that no one else is willing to do. He ends the marriage violently, which ends the plague and earns a special honour from G-d, he is given Brit Shalom ברית שלום  (a covenant of everlasting peace).

Especially in these chaotic times, we don't want to be embroiled in conflict. We want to retreat into quietude and to live in peace. There is nothing inherently wrong with that desire, but it's not always going to yield the result we want. A famous story in Massechet Shabbat teaches that when a wrong is committed in someone's home and he does not object, he is held liable for it; the same applies to wrongdoing in one's city, and it even applies to the whole world. When we see marginalization of the poor, destruction of our planet's life-support, political corruption, discrimination against BIPOC, LGTBQ, and women, we need object or we're complicit in these crimes. And I don't mean rage posting on Facebook; we need something more constructive, meaningful and impactful.

The name Pinchas is of unknown meaning in Hebrew and is possibly of Egyptian origin, but its letters spell the phrase פן חס lest you be silent. Sometimes the way to find peace is to find quiet and solitude; other times there will be no peace; other times we speak the truth and stand up for our values.

Shabbat Shalom,

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July 4, 2020 T

 

There is an important teaching that came up last week in Jewish Meditation. I taught about the subtle interconnectedness that exists between all human beings the mental/emotional plane. Many have observed that meditating in a group is dramatically different from doing so alone and we have found this to be equally true of our online classes. It just works better in a group. That feeling of deeper focus and concentration stems from the knowledge that others are doing it with you.

On Shabbat morning I made a similar remark about the fact that as we are praying there are hundreds of communities around the world doing so at the same time. We are blessed to live in the age of information technology, where digital communication allows us to communicate with people all over the world. The truth, however, is that all human hearts and minds have always been connected on a global mental/emotional frequency; it's just a matter of tuning ourselves into this frequency.

COVID-19 is precipitating a major paradigm shift– one that has been underway for some time already. The shift is in the ways we think, the ways we communicate, and even the ways we live and do business. We are shifting toward a world that thinks of itself and feels this connected to the whole human race at once; a global consciousness is being born. We are evolving away from the idea that a community that is geographically fixed to one which our community is felt and experienced as a global presence. The fact that our Shabbat services take place over Zoom is the perfect teaching mechanism of this concept. We are not all located together and yet we ARE together, connecting for a purpose. Despite the fact that our building is closed, Beit Rayim has continuously provided meaningful content and connection. It is time now to take this connection one step further: when you connect to the Shabbat service online or when if you are praying alone, you must know that you are NOT alone. Especially on Shabbat, a continuous 24 hour moment of intentional connection to G-d and each other, reflect on the fact that there are Jewish communities bringing in Shabbat all over Toronto, in New York, Miami, London, St. Petersburg, Capetown, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and of course we are all aiming our prayers at the hub of it all, Jerusalem.

COVID-19 is not a pause from life, it's not an inconvenience. It's a lesson we are being asked to learn. G-d is begging us to be a part of this shift, a part of this evolution, to tip the scales toward a more conscious planet. I hope you will answer this call and continue to connect to your Beit Rayim family. We are here for you.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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June 27, 2020 T

 

It is well-known that Judaism encourages the asking of questions,  the challenging of assumptions, and the resolution of conflicts. There are, however, right and wrong ways to go about it. For example, if I disapprove of someone’s actions, the derech eretz—ethically sound—way to approach them would be in private. Shaming and embarrassing them in public would be wrong. There are also right and wrong motives. If one’s concern is for the highest good, the most ethical and righteous outcome, raising challenges is not only acceptable, it is commanded. This is called makhloket l’shem shamayim, disputation for a higher cause (G-d’s cause). If someone’s concern is mixed with an interest for personal gain, or to address a personal grudge, this no longer called makhloket l’shem shamayim; this is now purely a war of ego, something there is little room for in the Rabbinic mindframe.

 

Korach claims that all Israelites were holy and thus Moshe and Aaron are wrong to place themselves on a higher level of authority and power. What he fails to understand is that Moshe and Aaron were G-d’s choice of leadership, not their own. His interest is not to create a more equal and just hierarchry within the Israelite nation; he wants to be at the top of power himself for leading this charge. He threatens Moshe and Aaron and leads an open rebellion against him. His fate in the subsequent verses are an indication that his cause was not just.

 

In today’s time we see many Korachs, so-called defenders of freedom and equal rights, use personal attacks to demonize their political opponents. They claim to serve the higher good, but their interest in personal gain is all too transparent. These Korachs lead themselves and everyone who follows them to destruction. No matter what side of the aisle you vote for, don’t be the person with the torch and the pitchfork howling for blood. Typing angry posts and frothing at the mouth may seem like the right thing in the moment, but if our net effect is more destructive than constructive, we know it’s not right. Seek to understand before seeking change.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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June 20, 2020 T

 

This weekend we see in the month of Tammuz, a dark time for our people which saw the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem. The concept of mazal is based on the idea that each day of the year there is a unique current of Divine energy flowing throughout the cosmos. Tammuz is bad mazal and this year it’s off to a volatile start.

 

Mercury is entering retrograde once again—Mercury reversing its course in the sky from our vantage point on Earth—which is thought to cause mental, spiritual, and even electrical disturbances. The summer solstice occurs just before the new moon appears, which means that the Earth is reaching the maximum northern extreme in its axial tilt; we’ll now begin shifting south and daylight will recede in the northern hemisphere. On this day of maximal sunlight there will also be a solar eclipse, suggesting an even more powerful confluence of energy.

What does all of this mean for us? The Earth is experiencing a shift; as we witness the accelerating extinction of species and brutal violence and injustice perpetuated on innocent people, we are also seeing a global awakening. People are beginning to realize that change is necessary; we must live differently, work differently, eat differently, connect differently if we want our grandchildren to survive. Many of us are having a hard time in the conditions of COVID-19. We are growing restless and weary, but we must not lose faith. Now is the time to turn toward Torah wisdom to find a way forward.

 

During this month of Tammuz,  Joshua was leading the Israelites in war against the Canaanites and there was a famous battle in which G-d performed a miracle through him: he stopped the sun and the moon. The message here is unmistakable: through our connection to the Creator we can transcend time and space. We are not subject to the Cosmos, we are not at the mercy of the stars, planets, moons, and other astrological bodies—G-d is supreme power in the Universe and when we attach ourselves to G-d we too can wield this power.

As we enter this month together, you may notice yourself disturbed, perturbed, irritated, aggravated or thrown off balance. Don’t worry. Ride it out. Take deep breaths. Be patient. Rest more. We will overcome together whatever challenges come about.

 

As G-d said to Joshua חזק ואמץ לבך . Be strong and courageous of heart. Better times will come.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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June 13, 2020 T

 

As you know, earlier this week the Province of Ontario announced that places of worship will be permitted to conduct religious services starting Friday, June 12, allowing for up to 30% of building capacity, with physical distancing in place. 

 

Many of you will have also seen letters issued by various synagogues across the GTA in the last two days announcing their respective reopening plans. To echo the Toronto Board of Rabbis, the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh–saving a life–is paramount to all discussions of reopening. Beit Rayim is committed to ensuring that our own reopening be carried out with the utmost care and consideration for the health and safety of our members and staff.

 

Presuming we can access our sanctuary, the measures which would be required to facilitate morning services under Phase 2 are beyond exhaustive. To hold services with these measures in place would be extremely challenging for staff and members and would likely be deleterious to morale and the ruach of our prayer service.  We also have many members for whom it is not considered safe to attend services even with these measures in place. Meanwhile, a significant number of our members may not feel comfortable attending at this stage.

 

In light of the above, Beit Rayim will continue to operate as we have for the past 90 days. Shabbat Evening and Morning services will be conducted over the Zoom platform. Our staff will continue to work from home and will not be available for in-person meetings or events. We understand how disappointing this may be to some of our members; I too long for the moment we can all stand together in our sanctuary with our Aron Kodesh and our Torah and raise our voices in prayer. That day has still not arrived.

 

Many have asked what this means for High Holiday services. Given the arduous task of facilitating Shabbat services in Phase 2, hosting our usual High Holiday services—even if Phase 3 is announced by September—will be next to impossible. What is possible--perhaps even likely—is that we can facilitate a High Holiday service with limited seating capacity which is also live-streamed (not Zoomed) for the many who will be unable to attend. We are presently making the various technical arrangements which will be necessary for this. Meanwhile, we are exploring the possibility of developing a hybrid live/live-streamed service for Shabbat which could begin later this summer.

 

Our parasha this week commands the Israelites to kindle the lamps in the Temple. It is these lamps which inspire the Ner Tamid—the always-burning candle above every Aron Kodesh in every synagogue in the world. We are eager to return to these synagogues. We are restless. It is taught that the Ner Tamid’s purpose is to remind you of the flame which burns in each one of us; our neshama, It is this flame to which we must now tend, not the synagogue infrastructure. The purpose of this time of inwardness is to teach us that we all have the flame of G-d burning within us.

 

Do not lose faith. We will get there one day. 

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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June 6, 2020 T

 

The Book of Judges is sort of like a fun-house mirror for the Bible; if by fun we really mean the opposite of fun. The Bible often depicts our ancestors as noble, holy, people who followed G-d with pure hearts; the laws are written as if to say all of the potential problems in your life will be solved by these laws, and Judges relays the opposite message. Judges is all about what went wrong with the social experiment that was Biblical Israelite society.

In this week’s Parasha there are two situations presented as problems for which the Torah provides laws as a solution. One law is that of the Sotah – if a man becomes suspicious and jealous of his wife and alleges adultery; she is brought before the Priest and must undergo a ritual to prove her innocence. If she is innocent, the ritual will cause her no harm and the husband will be ashamed; but if she is guilty the ritual will render her sickly and barren. Another law is that of the Nazir—if an Israelite is jealous of the priests and wants—like them—to function on a holier level, we can undertake certain vows that will effectuate this: he must never drink wine, alcohol or consume any grape product whatsoever, he must avoid contact with the dead (in a manner even more stringent than the Priests), and he must refrain from cutting his hair or beard. Our Parsha states these laws and moves on. Problems averted. Right?

Our Haftarah comes along and flips both laws on their heard. A man named Manoah has a wife—unnamed—who is visited by an angel. The angel tells the woman that she—although barren—will conceive a boy in the next year. The child must be raised as a Nazir from the womb: no wine or grapes, no haircuts, and this boy will grow up to redeem the Israelites. When she goes to tell her husband about the angel, he demands to meet the angel himself—implying that he does not trust his wife and suspects her of disloyalty/adultery. The angel appears again to the woman and she runs to get her husband. When he asks the angel about the prophecy, the angel says I’ve already told your wife everything she needs to know. Ask her! This minor aspect of the story is significant as it is displaying a jealous husband as foolish and unjustified.

This story also creates tension around the concept of the Nazir; one of the fundamental aspects of becoming a Nazir is to choose that path. Samson, as the boy will be called, is denied that choice. His entire destiny is laid out before him.

By setting this story as the Haftarah to this Parasha, the Rabbis show that they are not afraid of controversy. The Torah contains challenging ideas which don’t always work out the way the text would have us believe.

The Jewish approach is to see these challenges head-on. The Rabbis didn’t want blind followers; to be Jewish is to have keen eyes for logic and to seek to harmonize conflicts rather than erase them or cover them up.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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May 30, 2020 T

 

I wanted to use my spotlight this week to thank our amazing ShinShinim, Yael and Ravid, who are concluding their term at Beit Rayim this week. I am so sad to be losing them but at the same time I am extremely grateful that we got to have them here with us, teaching us, and that they remained connected to us even when the Jewish Agency called them home for their safety. I am also incredibly proud of the work they’ve done and the growth they’ve shown in the year that passed. Their Divrei Yisrael were always so engaging and meaningful but also fun and light hearted. They’re amazing young adults and their parents should be very proud.

Yael, said something in her Davar Yisrael about Shavuot which is now upon us. She astutely remarked at the difference between diasporic and Israeli experiences of the holiday. Whereas diaspora Jews form their associations out of the religious tradition, think of dairy, stay up all night, and Matan Torah, Israelis live out the Zionist expression of agriculture, visiting farms and fields while crops bloom and ripen. The Israeli expression actually reflects the Biblical root of the holiday and this is one of the many blessings of having a Jewish State; we no longer have to live within text and metaphor, we can practice Judaism in a visceral, physical way in the indigenous climate and land on which it was born.

While all of this is true, on a deeper level of reality—the plane on which the Sages lived—there is no dichotomy between the diasporic and Israeli ideas of Shavuot. Agriculture and Torah work the same way. The seed—information—is planted, nourished with water and sunlight, and grows. Then it seeds again. It goes on in an infinite process which changes and adapts over time; so too our Torah grows, is nourished, and evolves and adapts as a living document. Torah on a deeper level is the principles of reality on which the Universe is based. Everything in the world that comes into being—including the plants that grow and nourish us—unfolds according to principles set in place by the Creator. Where there is life, there is Torah; the bounty yielded by the Earth, that is G-d giving Torah.

Wishing you an open heart and mind on this sacred day of Matan Torah.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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May 23, 2020 T

 

Monday, May 18th was a very powerful day at the onset of a very powerful window of time both astrologically and Jewishly. Astrologically, three planets—Saturn, Venus, and Mars—are presently retrograde, meaning we’ve reached a place in our mutual orbits where the planets appear to reverse their direction in the sky. According to astrologers of all stripes this indicates a major shift for us mentally and emotionally. The forty-nine days of omer between Pesach and Shavuot carry a powerful electric charge for our Neshamot (spirits), each day carrying a unique potential to renew, recharge, and restore us. As we get closer and closer to Shavuot (only twelve days away as of Monday) the light of our souls begins to shine brighter and brighter in anticipation of receiving Torah from G-d at Mount Sinai once again. In the image below the red dot indicates our Monday position in the Omer counting. Each position represents a micro-attribute, a quality to be refined and rectified.

 

Now is the time to get excited about our  TIK-ZOOM Leyl Shavuot! TIK-ZOOM Leyl Shavuot! Thursday March 28 at 7:30pm Beit Rayim is partnering with five other shuls for an incredible night of Torah learning. You’ll be able to choose from over a dozen Rabbis, academics and other teachers including myself of course. Please register now!

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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May 16, 2020 T

 

This past Tuesday was Lag B’Omer, which is all too often a neglected holiday in North American Jewish life. This day marks the hilula (yahrzeit) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the students of Rabbi Akiva. Tradition attributes to Bar Yochai the authorship of the Zohar, a landmark text of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. The Zohar describes the death of Bar Yochai as a momentous, even miraculous, event as in the days before his death he revealed the Zohar to his students (20 volumes of mystical discourse on the Torah, rivalling the Talmud in length and depth). The students also describe paranormal phenomena in the moments of Bar Yochai’s death; Bar Yochai himself was surrounded by an aura of white light and his face was radiant. This light filled the room and burst into rainbow colours. At the moment Bar Yochai left the world the light shone out from him to his students. When they emerged from his house others noticed that they too were now radiant. This was a sign that his neshama had ascended to Gan Eden and that his students were now the purveyors of his mystical tradition and the Zohar which was passed down orally until the 12th century when it was committed to ink.

This story is a beautiful and important statement about the reality of death—it is not simply the end of our existence—but it is consequently also a statement about this life. That there is something powerful and mysterious beyond this world does not mean we are to ignore physical reality; we are meant to access something of that power and mystery here in this lifetime. We access it by evolving our spirit through acts of loving-kindness, expanding our consciousness through the study of Torah, and by drawing that consciousness into the physical world through prayer.

Bonfires are lit on Lag B’Omer to commemorate the abundance of light left behind Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on his departure. May we all merit a piece of that light and may we use it to illuminate the lives of ourselves and others.

Happy Lag B’Omer

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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May 9, 2020 T

 

As we move into the fifth week of Omer counting we are to begin refining the quality of הוד , which translated literally means glory. הוד  (hod) is a concept which encompasses gratitude (תודה  todah) and acknowledgement or agreement (מודה  modeh). Our behavior and our emotional well-being depend on this attribute.

Acknowledging those around us is key in manifesting compassion. Someone can be very nice and well-meaning, and yet can hurt a lot of people or make them unhappy by failing to acknowledge them. Someone can be extremely wealthy, but if they do not feel gratitude for what they have they will never be happy. הוד  is also connected to humility, because saying ‘thank you’ to someone requires that we reduce our ego enough to recognize that someone else has done something nice for us. Acknowledging others requires humility. It is no accident of history that the Jewish people are so named after the tribe of Yehuda יהודה . Yehuda’s moment of truth is when he pleads for Benjamin to be spared and offers himself to be imprisoned. His brother Yosef sees that Yehuda has acknowledged his past mistakes and is willing to correct those behaviors. We are a religion of ‘thanks’ and ‘acknowledgement’ of G-d; Shabbat and Kashrut and all of our laws flow out of the recognition that G-d created the Universe. We must also acknowledge of our own wrong-doing as Yehuda did. That is what makes us Jewish. By cultivating this attribute, we refine our souls.

Shabbat Shalom,

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May 2, 2020 T

 

On Sunday morning I took a walk to buy groceries and I decided I wanted to listen to the news on YouTube while walking. I’d had enough CBC and it’s Yom Ha’atzmaut this week so I thought I’d listen to Kan Hadashot in Israel. In the segment I heard they were, of course, discussing matters related to the coronavirus. Keep in mind, this outlet is not Times of Israel, not Jerusalem Post; the content is not produced for English-speaking North American listeners. This is what Israelis listen to while driving to work, or what they watch sitting at home in the evening. It’s not about Israel, it is Israel, and in fact it was about how other countries are currently dealing with the crisis.

Nearly every country around the world is now attempting to determine if and how to begin easing the restrictions on civilian life. Across the developed world we can see many levels of caution. The segment I listened to featured an intense discussion comparing the German response to the American response. They listened to Angela Merkel and then they listened to Donald Trump. The reporters remarked with mild astonishment that the United States is allowing certain states to determine what businesses have been reopened and warned that it is still very unsafe to do so,  stressing that we are still very much at the height of this pandemic.

When Theodor Herzl envisioned the Jewish State, he saw it as a nation among the nations of the world; an active member of a global community and a beacon of justice and enlightenment. The Israel I heard on the news was just that nation, not sealing itself off from the world but looking outward with concern and compassion at the rest of the world. True cosmopolitans, they  look not to Washington as a yardstick of sanity and reason, but Berlin.

Shabbat Shalom,

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April 25, 2020 T

 

It is always extremely sobering to come out off the elevation and freedom of Pesach and fall face first into Yom HaShoah. Decades of have gone by but each year the wounds are opened anew when we remember the great failure of humanity that was the Holocaust. Yom HaShoah always falls during the second week of the Omer counting, the week which the Zohar attributes to the Divine quality of Gevurah—strength, discipline and severity. Gevurah is contrasted with the Divine quality of Hesed, kindness. One might thus understand the placement of Yom HaShoah during this week to be a dark commentary on G-d’s role in the Holocaust. However, Jewish organizations are keen to note the full name of this observance is Yom HaShoah V’l’gvurot, The Day of the Holocaust and Heroism. It is not G-d’s Gevurah, G-d’s might, which we recall, but the courage and bravery of the many Jews and others who resisted the Nazis. We remember not only the Jewish and non-Jewish partisans who fought in the forests and raided German outposts, not only the Jewish fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (which lasted nearly a month, it took the Nazis longer to put down the uprising than it had taken to conquer all of Poland.)  But we also remember the many non-Jewish Europeans who risked their lives to save and hide Jewish people, many of them paying the ultimate price; the people who worked with foreign governments to secure visas for Jews to escape Europe to Palestine and elsewhere, and the prisoners who shared their food even though they themselves were already severely malnourished.

It is incumbent upon every Jewish person to remember and recount the Nazi war crimes, not only for the sake of historical justice but also so that we will remain vigilant towards the rise of anti-Semitism and hatred in our times. It is equally important that we recall the acts of bravery and heroism that marked this dark chapter not only to honour the memory of those who fought for life, but also  to shore up our own strength in the face of a mad world. We will not go quietly. We will not cooperate with fascism and terror. We will stand up ourselves and others.

May the memory of all the victims be for a blessing and may their souls be bound up in the bond of life.  

Shabbat Shalom,

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April 18, 2020 T

 

Having just  finished the final Yom Tov of Pesach, I know that a number of you are feeling increased stress and uncertainty with regard to this ongoing pandemic. Official projections have made clear that we are only in the very beginning of our ordeal. The thought of enduring social isolation for months to come is not a welcome thought, especially for those of us with small children at home, especially for those who are alone in the house all day every day, and especially for those of us whose incomes have been negatively affected by the crisis. Words of Torah and prayer can offer comfort at times, but they do not change the fact that this is a stressful and frightening time.

There is no better time than the present to take up meditation as a way to relieve stress and ease the affects of insomnia. In its simplest form, to meditate is to focus on the breath to the point where one is only aware of that breath.

1. Find a quiet space (in some homes, like mine, this can only be achieved when others are asleep)

2. Determine a set length of time (20 minutes is a good start)

3. Sit comfortably (there is no need to sit cross legged or on the floor)

4. Focus on the breath going in and out.  (There is no need to control or change your breathing; simply observe the feeling of the breath going in and out. Extraneous thoughts will occur almost immediately. It’s a certainty. This does not indicate that you have failed at meditating.)

5. When you notice that you have lost focus on the breath and have gone back to scattered, frenetic, or worried thoughts, just gently shift the focus back to the breath.

This is the basic technique of mindfulness meditation. When it comes to Jewish Meditation there are additional steps and tools which can aid us in focus and guide us toward a higher state of consciousness. Check our website for additional resources on Jewish Meditation.

Shabbat Shalom,

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April 11, 2020 T

 

As Passover approaches I want to offer some reflections on the unique nature of this year’s festival. Most of us are used to hosting or attending large gatherings on Pesach so it’s, of course, difficult and sad for us not to do so this year. For those of us who are in self-isolation and for many of us who are simply doing our part by staying home as much as possible, this feels like an Egypt, a mitzrayim—a confinement to a narrow place. As hard as this is, I want to offer another idea. For years I’ve heard my mother along with many other mothers express the idea that cleaning, koshering and cooking for Passover is their mitzrayim, that they are slaves to Passover itself. This is said mostly in jest but it does reveal an underlying truth: we place a great burden on ourselves every year to go all out, to cook many dishes, and we consume so many unnecessary products and we produce so much waste. This puts a heavy tax on our bodies and minds, our finances as well as our environment. This year we will not be able to do that. G-d has other ideas. I offer you the idea that this is an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson in distinguishing want from need. Climate change should be teaching us that, but it hasn’t so far. Perhaps this crisis is happening now so that we will be forced to learn how to minimize and reduce our waste and consumption and so that our children and their children have a greater chance of survival in this brave new century. G-d willing, next year we will be able to gather in numbers as we did last year, but hopefully we will have learned this valuable lesson.

For those of you who are alone in your homes this Pesach, I know this is hard. Know that you are not truly alone. We are united in heart and spirit with you. When we connect to the Almighty, we do so unite with all Jews everywhere.

May this Pesach be safe and meaningful for all of you

Hag Kasher v’Sameach

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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April 4, 2020 T

 

It is well known that during Pesach we are forbidden from consuming chametz, (חמץ) leavened grains, but this prohibitive mitzvah is not the only one regarding chametz. As Pesach approaches, we are also required to actively destroy or remove all chametz from our homes. This can be done by several means, but the primary and preferable means is by burning. For the normal household, this will include foods which we often stock up in excess and keep in storage (dry pasta, cereals, etc). The ancient Rabbis recognized the financial and practical hardship it would impose on us to demand that we consume or dispose of every such item in our homes so they devised a system whereby we could “sell” them to someone who isn’t Jewish who would “own” the chametz for the duration of the festival. The way this is done is that individuals sign a form authorizing the Rabbi to sell their chametz on their behalf.

In addition, each of us must recite a formula on Erev Pesach (found in the Haggadah) that halakhically renders null all chametz in his or her home. (Does not work for anything you plan to repossess and eat after the festival, it only applies to whatever wasn’t sold or destroyed). This year, with the extra challenge of social distancing it will be harder to fulfil the physical requirements of destroying chametz. Thus, these two mechanisms, the sale of chametz and the verbal nullification of chametz become even more important. You don’t have to worry about the crumbs that fall into cracks in your linoleum since you will have nullified your chametz verbally. The formula is: All leaven and anything leavened that is in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have observed it or not, whether I have removed it or not, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.

Because of the restrictions of social distancing, it is harder to find Kosher for Passover food. In light of this, the Rabbinical Assembly had provided some updated guidelines available here which I encourage you to see. If you have questions about Passover, please join me for Rabbi Chai this coming Tuesday at 3:30pm.

Please join us for our Zoom Seder for the first night of Passover, Wednesday April 8th at 7pm. If you plan to join see also this checklist on how to prepare for the Seder.  Regarding the Fast of the First Born, please see this ruling here, regarding the fast this year.

Shabbat Shalom,

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March 21, 2020 T

 

Many thanks to Kevin Zeilig for the inspiration behind this article:

Because we are living day by day in what is being called an unprecedented circumstance, many of us are finding it hard to resist fear and anxiety. I want to provide you with some reassurance that although, yes, the world has never been in a situation exactly like this, the COVID-19 pandemic is not exactly without precedent. Epidemics and pandemics are not new; they come and they go and there are many examples throughout history. Because Jewish people have been around for so long, we’ve actually had the opportunity to respond to epidemics in a variety of ways.

During a cholera outbreak in 1831 Rabbi Avika Eiger issued a ruling forbidding large gatherings. This meant that Jews had to gather in small groups of no larger than 15. This is familiar to us, except that for us, even the 15 would be too much. This ruling undoubtedly helped stem the epidemic.

During an outbreak in 1827 in Orsha (modern day Ukraine), the people turned to the Tzemach Tzedec, Rav Menachem Mendel (3rd Lubavitcher Rebbe) for guidance. He told them to give tzedakah. Interestingly, he said it was more important to give often than to give a large amount. In other words, if you could give $5 a day, you should give $1 five times per day rather than in a lump sum. This perhaps plays into the psychosomatic nature of our brains; if you feel good throughout the day you’ll heal faster. This is also relatable to our situation because we have seen an enormous outpouring of acts of goodwill and loving kindness in response to this outbreak. The single greatest act of lovingkindess toward your fellow human being though, is to stay home at all times unless absolutely necessary.

In 1774, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai was quarantined for 40 days in the port city of Livorno, Italy. While in quarantine he compiled one of his most famous works, Shem ha-Gedolim. It is due to this work that he is considered one of the fathers of Jewish bibliography. Some of your finest moments of creativity and genius in your whole life could be coming to you in the next few weeks!

These are just three examples, though there are many more. I’m not sugar-coating anything; this is a very serious situation we’re in, but it isn’t the apocalypse. I want you to read a fine interview with one of the greatest epidemiologists of our time so that you can understand the good, the bad, and the ugly of COVID-19, from his perspective. I don’t want to promulgate the liberal circulation of articles on this subject. This is an American expert. Please always consult with Public Health Ontario to verify anything you hear or read in the news.

https://www.wired.com/story/coronavirus-interview-larry-brilliant-smallpox-epidemiologist/?fbclid=IwAR0MBa9tMPwjAMfirV8WfgDAokuBylQ-3Awje2NIJBjzmIWJD7PFTZDP0Fc 

Shabbat Shalom,

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March 21, 2020 T

 

There is profound irony in this week’s parasha being Vayakhel. The root of this word is קהל  , to gather or congregate, something we are expressly discouraged from doing at this time as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are sadly unable to gather in our prayer space to worship on Shabbat. For many of us this is a devastating reality as the Shabbat morning service is something of a life support. When our lives are falling apart, when the world is falling apart, our instinct is to meet with the Rabbi or to come to synagogue. Now we can’t. When a loved one passes, we are comforted and surrounded by the warm embrace of our community. Now our congregants are sitting shiva alone. As inherently social organisms, human beings do not do well in isolation.

In this unfamiliar and unprecedented moment of social distancing, we must double our efforts to connect by other means, digitally and remotely. In recent years, there has been sharp criticism of social media platforms as purveyors of a false sense of connectedness: everyone’s connected but no one is connecting, sound familiar? Ironically and perhaps sadly, this is all we have now.

Not all is lost, Beit Rayim services will move onto the web, using livestreaming services. I have published a fairly detailed Rabbinic responsum outlining how and why it is permissible at this time to do so. The school will also be connecting digitally on Sundays. In the coming weeks, we will hopefully develop other means to connect remotely to the community. Those who do not have computers are now the most vulnerable; stuck at home all day with nothing but a phone and television. These individuals need us now more than ever. I’ve been reaching out to our membership by phone, but one man can only do so much. If you’re able to help, please shoot me a message and let me know.

It is no accident that this week is Vayakhel, because it is incumbent upon us now more than ever to use whatever digital means we have to connect, to be creative in how we use these platforms. In the words of Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, every hand we don’t shake must become a phone call we make. Reach out, talk to one another. We can’t be physically in the same space, but we are still a community. Let’s all step up and make that happen.

Shabbat Shalom,

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March 14, 2020 T

 

This Shabbat is Shabbat Parah, it is one of the four special Shabbatot leading up to Pesach. It has a special maftir which comes from Parashat Hukat (Numbers 19) which pertains to the commandment of the red heifer. In order to cleanse the Israelites from all spiritual and ritual impurities, the priests must sacrifice a completely red cow without spot or blemish, and which has never seen a yoke, and burn it. Cedar, hyssop and scarlet wool are added to the fire and the corpse is burned down to ashes. The ashes are then mixed with water and that water sprinkled on individuals to purify them.

During the 1st and 2nd Temple periods, the Red Cow was slaughtered close to Pesach, and our reading of this portion at this time of year is to remind us that Passover is coming and that we should be preparing to cleanse our homes and our implements. Because we do not have a Temple and because the priestly rituals are now defunct, this ritual too is defunct. According to the classical interpretations of the prophets, there will come a time when a Temple will again stand on Mt. Zion. Were there to ever be a 3rd Temple, in order for the priests to resume the sacrifices, they would require purification by this means. Many scholars have historically rejected the idea of a 3rd Temple and the resumption of animal sacrifice (among them Maimonides), but there are, of course, those of our brothers and sisters who are fervent in their belief in not only that it will happen, but that we should seek means to bring it about. In recent years they have challenged Israeli security authorities who do not permit them onto the Temple Mount plaza. This significantly increases the already strained relations between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem. There some among them who believe that the Al-Aqsa mosque should be torn down in order to build this Temple. To get a glimpse into the mind of the far-right messianist Jews, I recommend the film, The Red Cow, which was released at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival.

It is well established, in our times, by reading the sections of Torah pertinent to the Red Cow—and for that matter, all Temple rituals—we are considered by G-d as though we performed them literally in the Temple. Obsession with purity is an illness which can bring about great destruction to civilization. May the worst such obsession we suffer be that of hametz leading up to Pesach.

Shabbat Shalom,

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March 7, 2020 T

 

The Ritual Director and I are presently preparing to read the Megillah (SO YOU SHOULD ALL COME ON MONDAY NIGHT) and it has me thinking about Esther, one of the great female heros of the Bible. We know nothing of her parents, really. We know that her father, Avichayil was of Benjaminic lineage. This is significant because King Saul was also of Benjaminite lineage. Saul’s refusal to execute King Agag (who was descended of Amalek, nemesis of Israel, who was descended from Esav) resulted in his removal from the throne. Agag’s future descendant was Haman. Thus Esther and Mordechai completed a cycle of destiny, and in fact, I would not be surprised to find a passage somewhere to the effect that Esther (or Mordechai) was actually a Gilgul (a reincarnation) of Saul.

The name Esther means hidden, as in אסתר פני I will hide my face (Deut. 31:18). G-d’s name is not mentioned once in the Book of Esther because G-d is hidden in the story and most often G-d is hidden in our lives as well, but always there. Esther, however, is an alias given to her by her uncle, Mordechai upon adopting her. Her birthname was Haddasah, named after her parents’ favourite charity. Hadas is, of course, one the 4 species of Sukkot, possibly referencing salvation. Her father’s name, Avichayil, means my father is strength (אביחיל), it could mean my father is my strength. Here however, the meaning is clear: Esther is the strength of her father; it is her wisdom, her strength, her bravery and her courage which brought redemption to her father’s soul, as well as her great great great great great grandfather’s soul.

We do not know why the world is the way it is. We do not know why unfortunate circumstances befall us and why we are tried and tested the way we are, but it is important to remain aware of the fact that, as Jews, we are obligated to keep faith in our good deeds. The work we do in this life time to evolve ourselves brings redemption for mistakes that our parents made, and our grandparents, and our great grandparents, for many many generations back. That’s a big responsibility, but it’s because we also have the power to do it.

May we all merit to do so.

Shabbat Shalom,

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February 29, 2020 T

 

As I mentioned last week, the month of Adar should be a time of elevated joy and there exists a long standing custom of engaging in humour and levity throughout the month. In light of that, I want you to enjoy you two jokes from my close friend’s Zaida, Ruben Zilberman z”l. Mr. Zilberman had a thick accent, without which the jokes are less funny:

A man from Chelm once posed a riddle to his friend, “Vhat’s green, changs on de vall and vhistles?”

His friend repeated “’Vat’s green changs on de vall and vhistles?’ I don’t know, vhat??”

“Vhitefish.”

“Vhitefish?! But vhite fish isn’t green!”

“Nu, so you take eh paint, you take eh brush and you paint it green.”

“OK, but vhitefish doesn’t chang on de vall.”

“Nu, so you take eh chammer, you take eh nail and you nail it to de vall.”

“But vhitefish doesn’t vhistle!”

The man thinks for a moment and then says “OK, so it doesn’t vhistle.

——

“Vhat do you do if you don’t have coat in Russia?”

...

You DIE!

Shabbat Shalom,

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February 22, 2020 T

 

This Monday, the new moon of Adar will appear. The Talmud says מישנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה  when Adar begins we increase joy. It is time to amp up your happiness, tickle your funny bone, and turn that frown upside down. We are encouraged to engage in humorous conversation and light-heartedness, even practical jokes. At the climax of the Adar - the full moon, we celebrate Purim, which is the Jewish Mardi Gras - a festival of fun and gaiety. But is it really a happy month or are we trying conjure happiness and joy as a means to defend against something dark and troubling, like the timeless hatred and violence against our people showcased in the Book of Esther?

Adar is so named because during this month, G-d who is called –Adir– Mighty empowers the Jewish people with greater Might. Adirut is not just strength, it is the power which allows us to prevail over time, over space, over death and all adversity. The mitzvot of Purim: a) to recall the time when light prevailed over absolute darkness, b) to give to the needy, to c) to feed friends and family and d) to celebrate are all formidable medicines for the emotional malaise that tends to take hold of us as winter nears its end. Happiness and laughter are the greatest weapons against hatred and violence.

The Talmud says that during Adar, Jewish people have auspicious mazal (“good luck” and astral alignment). One who is in a legal dispute with someone who is not Jewish is advised to have a court date in Adar in order to tip the odds in his favour. I hope that this will aid me in my ongoing struggle to recover money from the Canada Revenue Agency. In hockey, Zack Hyman may start suddenly scoring more goals and sadly that is the only ray of hope for Leafs this season, as it appears the playoffs are well out of reach.

Shabbat Shalom,

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February 15, 2020 T

 

We return this week to explore the Sefer Taryag Mitzvot – The Book of 613 Mitzvot. This book is organized according to the Torah portion for the week. In this week’s parsha, Yitro, we receive the Aseret Hadibrot—the Ten Said Things, commonly known as the Ten Commandments. The first commandment:אנכי ה" אלקיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים I am Hashem Your G-d who brought you out of Egypt, is striking in that, although it is a positive commandment—not a prohibition—it does not seem to be based on any particular action. It is a truth statement.

“We are commanded to believe in the existence of an omnipotent Creator, Who is the Force dictating all natural laws, and the Creator sustains and provides for all creatures. Included in this mitzvah is the belief that G-d was, is and will always be…This mitzvah is different from other mitzvot in that it applies to every Jew every minute of the day…This mitzvah is the very essence of Judaism, the most basic of fundamentals.”

Rabbi Kahan, the author, also reminds his readers that of all the 613 mitzvot, only the first two of these Ten Said Things were heard by all the Israelites from the Almighty; the rest were relayed through Moshe.

I invite you this Shabbat, to COME TO SHUL TO HEAR THE TEN COMMANDMENTS as they’re read from the Torah (an additional positive commandment) and together we can take in the power and the glory of the precious jewel of this essential mitzvah. I invite us all to meditate deeply on the Sh’ma and Va’havta, as the commandment of believing in a single unified Force-Creator is not as separate as the obligation to behave morally and compassionately are not so separate as they may seem.

Shabbat Shalom,

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February 8, 2020 T

 

Last week, while news outlets bubbled with commentary on the upcoming—and now well-known—Senatorial verdict on Articles of Impeachment of the 45th President of the United States. While the World Health Organization experts declared a global state of emergency over a new viral outbreak that has infected thousands and killed several hundred people, there was a piece of hopeful news.

For the first time in history, a delegation of senior Muslim leaders from 25 different countries joined with their American Jewish counterparts to visit the camps and extermination sites of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. A very short time ago, it was considered taboo in most Islamic countries to give credence to the veracity of the Holocaust and widespread denial of its happening was the norm. We should not be so naïve as to think that has changed, but we must also not be so cynical as to discount the significance of this visit. Religious leaders hold a lot of sway in many of their home countries, and they can encourage others to question the official propaganda and learn the truth. Let us pray that their mission bears fruit and that future generations are raised without hatred for us or for anyone.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/this-must-never-happen-again-says-saudi-cleric-as-muslim-group-tours-auschwitz/

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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February 1, 2020 T

 

Last weekend, the world was saddened to learn of the demise of NBA legend Kobe Bryant. Bryant was 41 years old when his personal helicopter crashed in Calabasas, CA killing all passengers, including Bryant’s daughter, Gianna (13). Bryant was not only known for his shooting and guarding; he demonstrated an outstanding work-ethic and an insatiable thirst for improvement. He was among the few NBA players (among them Michael Jordan) who would begin his morning training drills at 4:30am, before the required practice time. He also watched video footage of himself and his teammates at half-time, giving them tips on how they could carve out easier shots for themselves. His appetite for achievement extended beyond the physical aspects of the game. He published a book The Mamba Mentality: How I Play about his early career and produced a documentary Dear Basketball about his retirement from the NBA. The latter made him the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film (2018). He also became a shrewd businessman, investing six million dollars in BodyArmor SportsDrink which. For years later, his stake in the company rose to two-hundred million dollars. He was notorious for cold-calling business leaders—CEOs of Fortune 500 companies—at all hours of the night to pick their brains and learn from them. Commenting on his sense of ambition, he thought it a great honour to be considered an over-achiever. To him that meant that he had squeezed every drop of juice out of the orange called life. He also gave back to his community. Bryant was the official ambassador for After-School All-Stars (ASAS), an American non-profit organization that provides comprehensive after-school programs to children in thirteen US cities. Bryant also started the Kobe Bryant China Fund which raises money for education and health programs.

I am sad that the world lost such a bright star. He was clearly something very different from the average NBA superstar. I am also inspired by what he was able to achieve in his short lifetime. That kind of hustle, rising before dawn, looking deeper into things, asking questions, thinking big. These are the things we, as Jews, want to pass on to our children. This was a man who will be remembered not only for his talent, but for his intelligence and earnestness in life. His work will have positive impact on the world for years to come. May we all be inspired to reap everything that life offers. And may his memory be for a blessing.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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January 25, 2020 T

 

Jewish thought and prayer is engaged in texts which hail from pre-ancient, ancient, late ancient, medieval, late-medieval and of course, modern times. Over the vast span of human civilization, we often deal in terms which vary in their meaning from one era to the next. One of these terms is shame. Our contemporary culture regards shame as almost entirely—if not entirely—negative. How then, do we approach a text which tells us, for example, that when one hears beautiful, enlightening words of Torah from the mouth of a great scholar, he should instantly be filled with a feeling of shame and lowliness? (Likutei Moharan, II, 72)

Our own culture has developed an allergic reaction to shame, and for good reason. Like the elements of the period table—which are potentially harmless or potentially lethal depending on the other elements to which they are bonded—emotions, depending on the other thoughts and emotions to which they’re attached, can be useful or toxic. Shame is a volatile emotion which becomes toxic very easily. I call this shaming. During the counter-cultural revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s, people came to realize that shaming children is counter-productive to their learning and development. Hitherto, the opposite was thought to be true. Generations upon generations of men and women were educated and motivated by being shamed by their teachers and elders. Eventually, we realized the toxicity of this emotion and began avoiding it to a fault.

We must dissociate this toxic shaming from the shame that Jewish texts say we should feel at times. What the text is advocating, we would more likely identify as bashful or humble, the feeling of not wanting to be honoured or famed. In the example above, the text is warning us from priding ourselves when we acquire knowledge of Torah. In fact, the more learned one is, the more humble they should be. Productive shame also includes an awareness of one’s own moral failings, but only to the point of awareness. All too often, people develop toxic shame, or shaming, which drags them into depression and despair. From this place, it is impossible to grow out of whatever behaviors we originally became aware of.

The key to all emotional struggles is balance. Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa taught that each person should have two pockets to help him remember his place in Creation. In one should be a slip of paper that says “I am only dust and ashes.” In the other should be a slip of paper upon which is written “The whole world was created for me.” Using our judgement—a faculty which improves only with time and experience—we must discern when is the appropriate time for each slip. 

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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January 18, 2020

 

Last week in shul I spoke about the Siyyum HaShas, the completion of the Talmud the associated ceremony outside of New York which I attended. I was inspired by the final words of the Talmud, ‘One who recited halakhot (Jewish law) each day is surely part of the world to come.’ Elsewhere in Talmud Rabbi Elazar said, ‘Great are Torah scholars because they bring Peace to the world’.

I taught in the same sermon that we have a responsibility to manifest solutions to the many crises we face; individually, communally and globally. Conflict and strife come about because there are haves and have nots; because we do not have solutions to our global crises the result is outrage, anger, and eventually violence. Learning Torah brings peace because it helps us manifest solutions by  revealing that which is hidden. Thus, we can create the conditions necessary for peace to flourish. One of the best examples comes from the last parasha of Bereshit, which we completed last Shabbat. Yosef’s ability to interpret dreams—data streaming from our higher awareness—allowed him to manifest unseen solutions for big problems. He was able to do this for himself, then for Pharaoh, and thereby all of Egypt. In the end, the entire region was saved from starvation by Yosef’s ability to reveal the hidden.

We must be like Yosef; we must use Torah to sharpen our minds to think beyond our limitations, and to soften our hearts to feel more empathy with our fellow humans. Thereby, we will be part of the solution to our global crisis. My challenge to you is simple: find a Jewish text and read a portion of it daily. Maybe you’re interested in philosophy, maybe Kabbalah, or perhaps you want to understand Jewish law better. If you’ve never read through the Books of Prophets, that would make a fine daily learning portion, one chapter per day. Find something that suits you and commit to reading a certain portion a day. Share your learnings with others so that we can all benefit and so that you can inspire others to do daily learning. Together we can start a revolution!

Shabbat Shalom,

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January 11, 2020 

 

Some time over the last year I saw a video online of a Rabbi talking about Daf Yomi1. He said that since the end of Daf Yomi was soon approaching, those who are doing it (which includes me) need to begin thinking about a new daily learning regime to replace it. After all, it is a well-noted adjuration (notably quoted in Pirkei Avot) to establish fixed times for Torah study. One option is, of course, to start from the beginning and do the 14th cycle of Daf Yomi. For me, this option did not interest me. I, of course, look forward to much more Talmud study in my future, but Daf Yomi is actually not the ideal way to study Talmud, though it has immense value as a practice. There are a number of other texts which have long-established schedules and calendars. Two of note are Nakh2 Yomi and Tanya3 Yomi, the latter of which I actually took up and completed simultaneously to Daf Yomi. I began to think about what I would do once Daf Yomi was over.

 

Last spring, when I attended the Rabbinical Assembly conference. One of the sessions I went to was led by my teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, who brought a text from the Zohar. In it, he mentioned that he began a practice, after completing a cycle of Daf Yomi, of learning a page of Zohar per day. This idea excited me, because, in many ways, the Zohar is parallel to the Talmud. Parallel but entirely different in scope, style, and interest. Zohar is the main body of text out of which the subject matter known as Kabbalah was formed in the medieval period. It was published around 1300 CE, nearly a millennium after the Talmudic era. The Talmud uses logic and dialectic to determine Jewish law, the Zohar uses poetry and coded language to teach about the spiritual realities that underlie the Torah. It is an entirely different project. Zohar is extremely difficult to understand; since so many of us are used to operating analytically and seeking to understand concepts logically, the Zohar, or, the psychedelic Talmud, is incredibly elusive—offering no explanation for wildly fantastical statements and imagery. It is also written in medieval Aramaic, a dialect unique to the Zohar, so without a companion text to translate and explain, reading it is a fool’s errand. Fortunately, there is now a version which includes not only a translation into modern Hebrew, but also a Hebrew commentary which elucidates the text, known as the Matok Midvash. Since it’s publication ten years ago, I’ve been dreaming about owning it, but it is quite costly and I am not accustomed to spoiling myself. But now, my wait has finally ended. I have committed to reading one page a day of Zohar, and because I now own a full set of the Matok Midvash Zohar, I will likely be able to understand what I am reading!

——

1. Daf Yomi, the global communal practice of reading one daf (page) of Talmud per day, resulting in its completion in seven and a half years. Started in 1920, the 13th cycle of Daf Yomi concluded on January 2nd.

2. Nakh נך is the acrononym for Neviim v’Ketuvim¸ the books of Prophets and Writings, fromתנך .

3. Sefer Tanya is the seminal work of Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the 1st Lubavitcher Rebbe, known as the Alter Rebbe, the progenitor of Lubavitch Chasidism. Tanya consolidates and organizes the key concepts of Chasidic Judaism by aligning the classical Jewish texts (Tanakh, Mishnah and Talmud) with the major works of Kabbalah (Zohar etc.)

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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January 4, 2020 

 

The final day of Hanukah, known also as zoi hanukah—this be Hanukah, is the day of maximal luminosity. The eight lights of the neshama merge with the light of Torah and the Eternal One; the final day of Hanukah enables us to transcend the limitations of physical reality and this is called a Nes—miracle. This year the last day of Hanukah was made bitter by the chilling news of the previous day, in which a Jewish community was attacked by a knife-wielding anti-Semite during a Hanukah celebration. My heart hurts for the people whose joy turned to sheer terror in an instant. It has been a sobering end to our festival of lights. Many of us are stepping into 2020 with some unease as we see the world around us grow madder by the day. I say to you, “Do not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. We must take the pain and the trauma of this world and use it to fuel our determination to create more light, more kindness, more righteousness. Macabee מכבי is an acronym— מי כמוך באלים ה— who is like you G-d, which we sang after the parting of the Red Sea. It's so important to believe that change is possible. Find your inner light— joy and compassion— and shine it outwards to heal emotional darkness. That is the essence of Hanukah.

Shabbat Shalom,

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December 28, 2019 

 

You may have seen an article in last week’s CJN entitled The Super-Bowl of Talmud. This title refers to the Siyyum HaShas, the completion ceremony for the 13th cycle of Daf Yomi. Daf Yomi is the practice of reading one page of Talmud per day, completing the Talmud in just over seven years. This practice was instituted in 1923 by the late Rabbi Meir Shapiro who was, at the time, head of the Chachmei Lublin yeshiva in Poland. At the time the practice was limited to the students of his yeshiva. Now it has grown exponentially to an estimated 40,000 people worldwide. When even one tractate of Talmud is completed, there is supposed to be a big celebratory conclusion, called a Siyyum. When the entire Talmud is completed, the celebration has to be even greater. Every seven years, when the Talmud is completed, thousands of people gather at Madison Square Garden in New York City for the Siyyum.


The current 13th cycle of Daf Yomi began in the summer of 2013. At the time, I was about to begin my final year of Rabbinical school. Several of the Rabbis who taught at the Ziegler School had just completed the 12th cycle of the Talmud and they decided to hold a panel discussion for the Ziegler students to advise any of us who might be considering joining the next cycle. I was inspired by this discussion and decided to do it. I always said, I don’t know where I’ll be living when the cycle is finished but I MUST be in New York on that day.


Amazingly, time has flown through me and past me to such an extent that until I saw the article, I hadn’t realized the Siyyum was coming up so soon - January 1st, 2020. I am now furiously going about making arrangements to be in New York that day. I look forward to this event and also to coming back to Beit Rayim to share the experience with all of you.

Shabbat Shalom,

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December 21, 2019 

 

Why Should I Light Chanukah Candles?

Chanukah candles remind us of the days when good triumphed over evil, and the forces of light prevailed against forces of darkness. Once upon on a time we were being crushed under the boot heels of a vast and powerful empire, forcing us to let go of Jewish teachings and wisdom and to conform. Those who practiced Judaism openly were tortured and executed in gruesome ways. It was a very dark and scary time but there were brave souls who fought against tyranny and won. And when they recaptured the Temple, they lit their Menorah, and they celebrated the miracle of the light.

We’re commanded to do this each year not just to celebrate; we do it because we need more miracles today. Jews in Canada and all over the world are under attack. Other minorities too are feeling the hatred coming at them from all sides. It seems like we’re heading into dark and scary times once again, and that’s why it’s so critical that we fight against that. Candles represents the human soul; the flame is the spirit and the wick is the body. The wick is made of olive oil, so we have to crush the olives of our bodies. That means you have to apply pressure to purify and clarify your “oil”, your spirit. We win with strength, but strength comes not from muscles or bullets, but from G-d and by knowing and realizing that G-d can and does make miracles happen every day. And with that attitude anything is possible.

Be a being of light, and have a Happy Chanukah!

Shabbat Shalom,

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December 14, 2019 

 

In my sermon last week I explained how the angels—ascending and descending the ladder in Jacob’s dream —are understood in the lens of the Zohar: they descend from higher orders of reality (where light vibrates on a higher frequency, a higher dimension) into our world, which is comparatively low, dark and coarse in order to refine and transmute physical matter into a light. Through this process, the angels act on G-d’s behalf to help along the spiritual evolution of our planet. The Zohar teaches that humans also take part in this cosmic energy exchange. The Jewish people—by being commanded in 613 mitzvot—have a specific task within this project.

We learned recently in our Jewish Meditation class that the relationship between these two orders of reality can be described through the letter aleph (see below). In fact, each Hebrew letter communicates and expresses a unique function in the traffic-flow of spirit/matter between the two worlds. In this analysis, the aleph is divided into two yuds—the upper yud representing G-d and the higher dimensions of existence, the lower yud representing our physical, three dimensional existence—simultaneously separated and joined by a vav. The lower and upper yuds both desire to unite with the other. How does the vav both unite and separate them and why?

Vav is also expressed as the number 6, thus the vav represents the six days of Creation and the six days of work in our week. Before Creation, only G-d existed. There was no separation. Each time G-d created something, G-d was bound to the Creation by the very act of Creation. At the same time, there was now something which wasn’t G-d, thus creating a separation. In this way, the vav both separates and unites the two worlds. The goal of mitzvot—particularly Shabbat, wherein the six days of Creation are transcended—is to render the vav translucent so that we can feel and experience the light descending from higher frequencies and attune ourselves to those frequencies. This is the neshama yetera, the extra soul one is granted Erev Shabbat and which departs after Shabbat.

This demonstrates, if nothing else, the wealth of information that is hiding and waiting to be discovered even in something simple and basic as the letter Aleph.

Shabbat Shalom,

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December 7, 2019 T

 

Let my teaching come down like rain, my words descend like dew.

­-Deuteronomy

The word of G-d, the data stream of the Universe, behaves like rain; it descends from above and flows openly and abundantly to everyone indiscriminately. It’s happening all the time. Within everything that happens to us every day there is something to learn; each moment has a potential lesson to be unpacked. Earlier this week Toronto was hit with a significant storm event; for more than twenty-four hours straight ice and snow rained down on the city. If rainfall represents Divine consciousness and intelligence descending to our world, then what does snow mean? Because snowflakes have more surface area they fall much more slowly than raindrops. Say each raindrop or snowflake represents one word or one teaching, the lesson in snow is being delivered more slowly; this is considered an extra measure of Divine kindness, for in slowing the stream down, G-d gives us more time to absorb the data. With inclement weather comes an increase in the odds of illness and even injury. These can be avoided by slowing down. Sometimes it is challenging to be efficient, and sometimes we are unrealistic with our expectations of ourselves. When it snows like this, nature is telling us to slow down. Those who heed this call will not cringe at the forecast; if it takes longer to get to work, so be it. As long as you get home safely, that’s all that matters.

Please be careful and stay warm.

Shabbat Shalom,

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November 30, 2019

 

I had a wonderful weekend at Beit Rayim. Shabbat morning I had an amazing time in the Family Service. If you have young children and you haven’t been to our Family Service, you don’t know what you’re missing. I use what I call the Disney effect, where my remarks and the general flow of the service resonate with children and parents simultaneously. Please attend our next one, Dec. 14th at 10:00 am. The regular service was also wonderful, the service flowed like butter. I was feeling the Shabbat groove and it seemed that everyone was enjoying themselves. Walking home, I remarked how grateful I am to do what I do.

Sunday morning I was in the Kimel Beit Midrash with Grades 4-7 as usual. I help the Grade 7 Hazzanim lead their school in prayer while offering age-appropriate insights into the prayers. I work the room as we pray and make the kids smile. I want children and teachers to be happily enjoying themselves during these prayers. That way they like shul and school and they also absorb more of what they’re taught. I suggested the following technique: I asked them to slow down the Shma immensely; we take a deep full breath before each word and draw out the word almost until our breath runs out. This creates a meaningful moment in which children can embody the prayer in a meaningful way. It’s almost like a meditation. It seems unorthodox, but in fact, this measure aims to correct our deviation from the original intentions of the Shma. To learn more about this, attend the meditation classes on Thursday evenings.

We have a great thing going at Beit Rayim and I am a very lucky man to be the Rabbi here. It is a duty and privilege.

Shabbat Shalom,

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November 23, 2019 

 

I’ve just begun my five-week series in Jewish Meditation. The class was planned to be part learning, part guided meditation practice. The presentation portion relied on Microsoft PowerPoint. I arrived to find that I was locked out of all my software, making it impossible to give the presentation. At this point I had a class of more than twenty people assembled in front of me ready to begin. Noticing that I was more than a little flustered at the technical glitch someone said May I suggest a deep breath? I smiled. It was a learning moment. Our lives are enhanced immensely when we are able to be more conscious.

After acknowledging my immense frustration with all things technological, I eventually surrendered my and changed the lesson plan. I led the class in discussion on the connections between Jewish and Eastern spiritual practices. I discussed the history of Jewish meditation and how we came to be so removed from the practice that most of us are oblivious to its existence. We also talked about the phenomenon of the Jew-Bu, Jewish Buddhist vs. the Bu-Jew, the Buddhist Jew; two different things. Did you know that Jews account for seventy-percent of Western converts to Buddhism. (That’s a very large percentage). Why are we being drawn to the East more than Christians and others? For Reb Zalman Schachter Shlomi (1924-2014), the answer is simple. We Jews have a well-preserved traditions, history, and institutions, but our spirituality is lacking. For numerous reasons we’ve lost focus on the means by which we cultivate our higher consciousness. We do Tikkun Olam, service projects, cultural holiday festivities, and prayer services. (The latter have a potential to be spiritual exercises but often this is not the case.) Those that migrate toward Buddhism are addressing a lack of spiritual inspiration in their Jewish lives. Reb Zalman Schachter Shlomi, who founded a movement known as Jewish Renewal, diagnoses this deficiency and prescribes spiritual vitamins—techniques imported from Eastern and other cultures—to revitalize and inspire our Jewish practice. Our second class (which is really going to be our first one with a PowerPoint… hopefully) is November 28th at 7pm in the Kimel Beit Midrash. I hope you’ll come try it out. I am also providing a monthly Saturday morning meditation before services at 8:30 am. December 21st is the next one of those, and I need to start walking from home before it gets light to be there, so I hope you’ll come!!

Shabbat Shalom,

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November 16, 2019 

 

This week when we open our news, we are bombarded by reporting of intensely distressing news all over the globe: fires engulf Eastern Australia where they are expected to wreak unprecedented destruction, Hong Kong police clash with demonstrators in protests that have lasted months, missiles rain down on southern and central Israel in retaliation for taking out an Islamic Jihad leader, and, in far less serious news, a long-serving, celebrated sportscaster—a role model—upsets his viewers by using language to describe immigrants and refuses to apologize. He should know better.


Amidst the chaos that confronts us, it is extremely difficult not to give in and despair of the world. Oh no! Oh my! Vey, vey, vey! This reaction, though, serves only to amplify and compound the chaos so that the more we observe it, the more it is so. Instead, we must insist on its opposite. We have to be the calm in the midst of the storm; the eye of the hurricane, resting in the assurance that the momentary chaos in front of us is merely a stepping-stone to a higher order. Planets can orbit a star for millions of years in perfect, peaceful clockwork before one of the planets is struck by a comet, sending it into an erratic orbit, the gravity of which disturbs the orbits of all the other planets, possibly flinging some into deep space and altering the shape of the solar system as a whole. It would be false to say that ‘chaos’ (the comet) disrupted the ‘order’ (the original orbit), for in truth that comet was orbiting the star as well, but its orbital pattern was simply much longer. It’s not chaos, it’s a higher order.


Biblical narratives depict civilizational corruption, destruction and rebirth. The Temple order was so corrupt by the 6th century, that only destruction and exile could enable the revival of the Jewish spirit. A new seed does not sprout until its shell is broken. We are seeing the seeds breaking. Resist the urge to despair of the many destructive changes you are seeing around you; they are part of a natural cycle. See yourself as the calm within the storm, the still silence that speaks after a big snowfall.


Tonight (November 14th) is the first session in our series on Jewish Meditation. You can learn here to cultivate the calm I am describing so that you can be at peace with yourself internally and project serenity outward. If you missed tonight, try next week and come this Shabbat at 8:30 am for a guided meditation which leads into Shacharit.

Shabbat Shalom,

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November 9, 2019 

 

This Shabbat, Lech Lecha, falls two days shy of Remembrance Day, where we pay homage to the men and women who fought bravely to defend the values we stand for. Some people are more fastidious than others about wearing the poppy early, which now includes pre-Halloween poppy people. This is not a bad thing, though one should not be frowned upon for missing their poppy (it could be that it fell off or they forgot to pin it this morning, we don’t know). Last Friday night, of course, I attended the joint Oneg Shabbat with Har Zion in honour of Peace of Mind—which brings over a combat unit from Israel to receive therapy and counselling after the trauma they experienced defending our homeland and its citizens. One of the soldiers asked me about the meaning of the poppy. I realized that Israelis, unlike Canadians, aren’t exposed to the history of WW1. I did my best to explain Flanders Field, the battle at Ypres, and the trauma which echoed through the whole British Commonwealth in the wake of that bloody conflict, and our tradition of honouring those men for what they were defending.

It was poignant to explain this to a group of soldiers who had put their lives on the line to defend the lives of Jews. It is a sacred duty to remember all of these men and women, whether they spilled their blood on the snow under a grey Belgian Sky, or whether they spilled their blood under the hot sun in the desert. They would want to know that it was not for nothing. They were defending everything they knew and loved. For the Royal Armed Forces it was against vile aggression of men who wanted to overturn Europe—twice, the second time launching a war of extermination against Jews and everyone else they deemed inferior. For the IDF, it was and is against tyrants, thugs and warlords who profane their own G-d by killing Jews in G-d’s name. In the news this week, we learned that—thanks to the hard work and dedication of counter-terrorist agents under the FBI—an attack against a Jewish place of worship was thwarted.

We remember too, the Jews that lost their lives just over a year ago in Pittsburgh while they were praying in a synagogue. Meanwhile, Jews in Borough Park are cursed, chased and beaten in the streets of Brooklyn. If a Jew isn’t safe in Brooklyn, where are we safe? This highlights very well the need for State of Israel and also our obligation to honour and remember anyone and everyone who gave their lives to save Jews and others. May their families be comforted and may their souls have rest and peace. G-d bless them.

Shabbat Shalom,

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November 2, 2019 

 

The New Moon of Cheshvan has now risen over us. Every new moon brings opportunity for cleansing, for rebirth, revitalization and renewal. Even now, after the noise and celebration of all the holidays has faded, and my sukkah is disassembled and awaiting storage, and the sky is dark with thick clouds, and the rain begins to fall, there is still opportunity for new beginnings. What was your most awesome moment over the past month? What inspired you? What thoughts and feelings arose in your psyche? What kind of change have you sought?

It is still busy at Beit Rayim. We are welcoming soon a new executive director while our other admin staff work hard to hold down the fort in the meantime. There are numerous events, meetings, and courses to attend. Anyone looking for enrichment and spiritual growth will find a treasure box of offerings. You can learn how to meditate and integrate Jewish technique into your practice. You can learn how to assist the clergy in the ritual sphere as well.

In Cheshvan, there are no chagim to hold us. We have to push for it. Open your hands, and you will receive.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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A Message from our Board Chair and
(Interim) President

A few days ago, we concluded our annual High Holidays which began with Erev Rosh Hashanah on September 29th and concluded with Sukkot on October 22nd. Most of you would have attended some of these services, in particular the very large services we hold each year in the temporary sanctuary constructed in the (former) CHAT gym. The High Holidays consume a huge amount of our resources, and we should all be very grateful to the employees who put in lots of overtime, and of course our loyal volunteers who helped make it all possible!

After Yom Kippur we invited you to participate in our annual survey. This year the feedback is particularly important because we did some things a little differently.  Actually, each year we usually change up a few things … this year there were perhaps quite a few more changes than usual. Thank you to everyone who responded quickly and candidly with your comments. The detailed results are still being organized but one thing is for sure: everyone has an opinion! I will commit to all of you two things: firstly, as soon as possible, we will provide membership with summary of the survey, and secondly, your opinions do count, and we will endeavour to make changes for next year to satisfy as many as possible.

October 25th is a significant day in the management of Beit Rayim Synagogue & School: we say goodbye to our Executive Director, Candace Vogel. Candace joined Beit Rayim in 2017 and has overseen many operational improvements and has provided exceptional support to both your volunteer leadership team and all our employees. She is leaving us to pursue an opportunity at one of the largest shuls in Toronto and we wish her nothing but happiness, success and good health. I am hopeful she will not forget her friends and fans at Beit Rayim, and will visit from time to time.

On November 4th, we will welcome Rivka Campbell, who will be joining Beit Rayim as our new Executive Director. Rivka comes to us after several years in a similar capacity downtown at the City Shul. I am very confident Rivka will be a great addition to our leadership team. There is a lot to tell you about Rivka but I will leave that to her … when you come to meet her at our Shabbat services where she plans to be a regular. The inside scoop is her first Shabbat may be our annual Kiddush Club Shabbat on November 16th … good planning Rivka!

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Larry Miller

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October 19, 2019 

 

This week I had the pleasure of receiving guests in my home for our Open Sukkah program. Beit Rayim graciously provided delicious food and I brewed up a pot of my world-famous chai masala (spiced tea), perfect for a cold autumn night. Avivit brought activities for children: make-your-own edible sukkahs, which the children enjoyed. While it was a little too cold to hang out in the sukkah itself, many adults and children came outside to wave the Lulav and Etrog. They were eager to perform this rare mitzvah and, once they had done so, they reported feeling much better. Some of them had not had the opportunity to wave Lulav yet this year, so it was a big moment for them. This is what I found most impressive: that people should be so drawn to doing a mitzvah that they feel something is not right until they have performed it, and having performed it they feel a sense of contentment and satisfaction. That feeling—contentment and satisfaction—is the essence of Sukkot, as it says and you shall rejoice on your festival

(Deut. 17:14).

  

Shabbat Shalom,

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October 12, 2019 

 

With Yom Kippur now behind us, many of us are already settling back into our ‘normal’ routines. People don’t think that the High Holidays actually keep going…but they DO! The very first thing we are supposed to do upon the conclusion of Neilah is not simply to shove four pieces of lasagna down our gullets but to hammer the first nail into our sukkah.

The teshuvah of Yom Kippur is a transcendent, elevating experience that takes us out of body into the world of the spirit and it is from that high holy space that we create the intentions for the coming year. In order to ratify and solidify those changes — in order to make them real — we have to translate this transformation into something physical. It must be grounded. This is why Sukkot comes precisely when it does.

By building a physical structure, we create a space in which we can abide in the kedusha — the holiness — that we generate on Yom Kippur. By taking up the lulav and etrog we absorb that same kedusha. We both contain and are contained by holiness on the physical level and that is how Sukkot activates the teshuvah of Yom Kippur.

If you don’t follow through with something; it’s like not doing it at all. Thus, if we don’t do Sukkot, did we really do Yom Kippur?

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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October 5, 2019 

During these ten days of awe I participated with thirty other local Rabbis in a Yom Iyun, a day of learning. Our theme was to connect our process of Teshuvah to tikkun Olam.  I walked into a classroom with more than twenty grade 9 students. I first had them move all the desks so that we were all in one giant circle and I sat on a swivel chair in the middle of the circle. Next, I guided them in a breathing exercise which engaged their hand muscles. I used this opening exercise as a means to introduce the concept of fixing the world by shifting internally. I used the example of the shofar, which triggers an internal awakening to change our external behaviour, as well as the example of Shabbat whereby controlling our own actions creates a ripple affect of peace outward. With fourteen-year olds, one can never be sure if they are absorbing what they learn.

 

Emotional peace, inner spaciousness, and security are something all of us are lacking. Teens are lacking it acutely. By giving them some tools to create calmness, I hope I have empowered them to affect positive change around them. I hope that you too will avail yourselves of these tools and attend meditation sessions this fall.

 

Shanah Tova everyone!

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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September 28, 2019 

 

As I’ve taught before, between the 1st day of Elul and Shemini Atzeret, Psalm 27 is heard every day. The origin of this custom is shrouded in mystery. The most accurate scholarship indicates that it must have emerged in the late 1790s in Eastern Europe. Midrash Tehilim Shochar Tov (12th century) says that the Psalm’s opening words “Adonai is my light “refers to Rosh Hashanah, and “my salvation” refers to Yom Kippur.
 

Each Psalm conveys a particular medicine for a particular situation. This time of year is stressful, not only because we are busy preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For one who is committed to the work of Elul - cheshbon nefesh, spiritual accounting - there is a fear that we do not measure up, that we are not good enough, that our sins outweigh our merits. Coupled with that is the end of the agricultural cycle, which is the start of the fiscal year and the school year. Financial well-being is the most stressful subject for many of us. Fear is actually not a good motivator for change. It is ultimately destructive and counter-productive to spiritual growth. This Psalm is the remedy for all that stress.
 

G-d is my light and my salvation who shall I fear “that which gives substance my existence is eternal and I can trust that this Infinite Source will provide a solution for any possible problem that can arise.” Be strong-hearted and of good courage, and have hope in G-d. When fear arises, remember that G-d never abandons us. Reb Nachman of Breslov said, “if you believe that you can break it, believe also that you can fix it. If you think G-d is real enough to punish you, you also must believe that G-d is real enough to forgive you.”
 

Shanah Tova everyone!

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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September 21, 2019 

 

I am still buzzing from an incredible weekend! It all started Thursday night as we dedicated a NEW SEFER TORAH in honour of Reb Chezi Zionce z”l. There was teaching, singing and dancing. It was an exhilarating experience. One could palpably feel the ruach and love of Torah in our community.

The following Shabbat we had that same luminescent buzz in the sanctuary. Regulars and guests were upbeat and cheerful. Two women—relatives of the Bat Mitzvah—read Torah for the first time out of a Torah that was being read for the first time! Sony Nsieri, who worked very hard on the project of commissioning this Sefer Torah, had the honour of being the very first one to read from it.

The next day was the first day of school and my job for that morning was to address teachers, staff and parents at the orientation. As educators, we know that when students enjoy themselves during class, they apply themselves more and absorb the material better- so to get everyone’s attention I blasted my shofar really loud. In my address, I made everyone raise their hand and say “I promise, to always have fun at Beit Rayim Synagogue and School”.

Elul is a time of light. We can feel the brilliance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur radiating into our lives more and more each day. We are now less than two weeks out. Last weekend was the half-way point of the month, i.e. the full moon. Ner mitzvah v’Torah or, every mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light (Proverbs 6:23). When the moon was shining its brightest we were finishing our new Sefer Torah, as the ink filled in the final missing spaces in the letters, completing the circuit and allowing the cosmic power that is Torah to fill the world.

The effect it had is amazing.

We are now very close to the finish line of 5779. Let’s ride this wave together and give thanks for all of the positive energy we’ve had so far.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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September 14, 2019 

 

If you come to Shabbat and holiday services regularly, you will have observed the custom of Shir Shel Yom, the Psalm of the day: one for each day of the week plus special psalms for holidays and times of observance. Psalms of the day are read usually at the end of morning services. At this time, during the month of Elul—the last month of the year, the time for inward focus and reflection before Rosh Hashanah - we read Psalm 27, which I referenced last week. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do. Interestingly, it’s read after Maariv, the evening service as well.

According to the commentary in the Vilna Siddur (which contains exhaustive commentaries on prayer customs from the Rishonim and Acharonim) the first source that mentions the custom of saying Psalm 27 in Elul is Sefer Shem Tov Katan by Rabbi Binyamin Baiynoush (1910-1993). This is hard to believe as the custom almost certainly dates back to much earlier times. According to Rabbi Dr. David Golinkin (Schechter Institute, Jerusalem), there is no mention of it in the Talmud, or in any work by the Geonim, Rishonim, or Acharonim, or in any of the major codes of Jewish law such as the Shulkhan Arukh! Rabbi Golinkin has found it mentioned in the siddur of Rabbi Yaakov Emden which he published in the year 1745. We presume the custom arose around this time.

 

The aforementioned texts tell us that by reciting Psalm 27 morning and night we will nullify any evil decrees that may be written against us for Rosh Hashanah i.e. our “bad karma”. We will explore this notion further, but first, I recommend that you begin this practice and then observe feel its effects. As you read the words - Hebrew or English - be aware of your breath and the feeling in the body. Perhaps you will come to an intuitive, rather than intellectual, understanding of the custom. Judaism works best when you can FEEL it. 

Shabbat Shalom,

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September 7, 2019

 

We have now entered into the holy month of Elul. Elul 1st is the launch pad for Rosh Hashanah. Four Shabbatot from now, on Tishrei 1st, we will be lifted up into the stratosphere and the ionosphere and we will come into the heart of Heaven – Lev Shamayim whence spake the Eternal One at Sinai, and we will stand before the Throne of the Ruler – Kiseh HaMelekh and we will hear the blasting of the shofar, and we will feel the thunder of the Day of Judgement…or we will sit idly in our seats, follow along, stand, sit, and repeat cooperatively. Then we will get bored and maybe check our phones even though phones aren’t allowed on Yom Tov. And then if we get tired of that we might look at the time and wonder how much longer this thing is going.

It is up to each one of us to decide how our Rosh Hashanah will go. The conditions of the day - the sound of the Cantor’s voice, the length of the Rabbi’s remarks, the temperature of the room -  will have an influence, but you are the decision maker. The time for making that decision is now. In the coming weeks, prepare yourself for the experience. Study some Elul Torah online or make a daily practice of reading Psalm 27 , or learn to blow a shofar. Meditate, do yoga, or exercise mindful breathing during your workout. As you do these things, think about the mental, emotional, verbal, and physical habits. Address them from the perspective of your body, like a healing exercise.

The work begins now. Don’t show up on Erev Yom Tov unprepared.. 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

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august 31, 2019 

 

Many people think that religion and science are opposed to one another. That’s wrong. Judaism embraces science and always has. For example, earlier in the year, I signed on to the Toronto Board of Rabbis’ official statement on vaccinations. New discoveries sometimes challenge the ancient or medieval ideas of how nature works, but Judaism is equipped with many tools of reinterpretation which allow us to refine and recalibrate our understanding of scripture and science. We’ve been doing it for centuries.

Because of my own personal love for and reverence of science I was alarmed to read last week Elections Canada’s statement warning non-profits against talking about climate change during the campaign season. Their concern: saying climate change is real could be seen as partisan activity. How outrageous! If a candidate wants to run on the platform that the Earth is flat, should we then conclude that saying the Earth is round is now a partisan issue? If anything, this shows a bias on the part of Elections Canada to shelter climate-denier candidates from outside critique.

This week, a group of over 350 scientists called on Elections Canada to clarify their statement on climate change. I was happy to see today that they have done so; you can read more about it by clicking here. Going against science is not a Jewish value. On the contrary, when people go against science in a way that endangers the lives of others (almost always), Jewish people have an obligation to protest, as it says, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16), and as it says “protect and safeguard your lives” (Deuteronomy 4:9). In a case like this, where the ability of the human race to survive is at stake, how much more so?

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

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august 24, 2019 

 

I am grateful to be home after a relaxing and restful family vacation. This week I want to share some timely sentiments from my colleague, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat:

This week's Torah portion, Ekev, includes powerful words. Like these: "And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your G-d demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your G-d, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your G-d with all your heart and soul[.]" (Good stuff, eh?)

It also includes a line which has always resonated for me. Pharaoh is described in Torah as a man with a hardened heart. Sometimes we ask G-d not to harden his heart against us. And here G-d is asking us to do the same: to make sure our hearts don't calcify, and to peel away whatever keeps us "hard-hearted" so that we can relate to the world in an open way.

It sounds so simple, but it isn't easy. In any given day, each of us has reasons to harden her heart. Personal reasons, like misunderstandings and harsh words -- and more global reasons, like the suffering and trauma we would see if we really looked at the wide world. Imagine walking through a supermarket with your heart truly open to everyone you meet there. (Imagine walking through a market like Makola or Machane Yehuda.)

Going on vacation tends to open my heart wide. It's an amazing experience...though sometimes re-entering the "real world" leaves me feeling like I have the bends. These days I think about this in terms of ratzo v'shov, the ebb and flow of spiritual energies. (The term comes from Ezekiel, who applied it to angels.) I oscillate between protecting my heart enough to be able to function, and opening it enough to be able to love and feel and pray.      

Shabbat shalom,

 

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august 17, 2019 

 

While Rabbi Corber is on vacation, here are some previous words of wisdom from Rabbi Chezi Zionce z”l. Rabbi Chezi was on our minds  this week as our new Torah, written in his honour, was transported from Israel and arrived safely in Canada. Thank you to Riana Isenberg, the courier of this precious cargo ... kol hakavod! Please join us on September 12th for the official celebration. 

Larry Miller, Interim President and Board Chair


 

Our Torah portion this week is called Va-ethannan, which translates as "I pleaded" and is the beginning of Moshe's (Moses's) farewell speech to B'nai Yisrael (the Children of Israel).

The parasha also contains the central prayer of Judaism, the Shema. It is in the Shema where we are given the commandment of tefillin, as we are told: "And it shall be as a sign on your hand and for frontlets between your eyes." The tefillin get put onto our head and our arms. What is in those tefillin boxes? It is a parchment that has on it the four verses that tefillin are mentioned in the Torah - with one big difference. The tefillin on the head have the four verses inscribed in four separate parchments. The tefillin on the hand have the four verses on one parchment. From this, our sages taught that there will always  be divisions when it comes to our head, when it comes to our minds. There is always going to be differences of opinion and different perspectives, but what counts is that there be unity when it comes to the actions of our hands. The Biblical verse regarding the tefillin speak first of the hand, then of the head. Actions speak louder than words.

May we take this lesson to heart and may our actions in the quickly approaching new Jewish year reflect our true inner selves.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Chezi Zionce z`l

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august 3, 2019 
 

In my sermon last week I discussed the incredible story of Greta Thunberg, a teenage girl from Sweden who staged a one-woman climate protest in front of her country’s parliament building. Her protest inspired the global climate protests which began to grow over the following year. In March of 2019, 1.4 million students in 112 countries walked out of their high school classrooms to demand their that their governments take collective, decisive action on climate change. I compared her to Pinchas, a man of the younger generation, born after the Exodus, who was the only one to stand up against destruction to save his people.

The children of this crusade are not asking for anything grand or unreasonable. They have one simple request: to live. They want a future wherein they have a reasonable chance of survival. Also last week, Forbes ran an article which was penned by one of their senior contributors, Steve Denning, which focuses on the threat posed by climate change and also on our lack of global action thus far. Please read the article in its entirety:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2019/07/21/implementing-the-one-viable-solution-to-climate-change/amp/ 

This is not political. This is not partisan. This is fact. I know that I am taking risks by taking a stand, but our children, our grandchildren and their children are too important to remain silent.

Shabbat Shalom,

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July 27, 2019 
 

In the three week period between last Saturday and two Sundays from tomorrow we are mourning the loss of our sacred Temple, the Mikdash. Last Shabbat I alluded in my sermon to the idea that every human being is as important and sacred as the Mikdash. The breaking of the glass at a wedding does not only represent that fateful day of massive destruction and unimaginable suffering which occurred thousands of years ago, it represents the sadness and death we all experience at the loss of life, be it of our own life, our loved ones’ lives or the lives of strangers.

Expanding on this idea: if one human life is as holy as the mikdash, how much more so is the very idea of biological life to begin with? The biosphere, the existence of life on Earth, is the ultimate mikdash. This is the only place in the Universe in which we have confirmed that there is life. There’s no way to describe the holiness of that.

The three weeks are about toning down the noise of our joy so that we can be cognizant of the early warning signs of the destruction of all things. This week in Australia an ominous event occurred which I cannot take as anything other than a warning about the damage we’re doing to our own biosphere: dying birds fell out of the sky screaming and bleeding from their eyes and beaks. Witnesses to this event said “it was like something out of a horror movie”. They and the rescuers who were called to the scene were deeply shaken. Imagine seeing sixty birds lying on the ground, screaming and bleeding, unable to fly. The suspected cause of these deaths is poisoning. Whether this was malice or human negligence, the fact is that we have to heed this as a warning about the loss of biodiversity. We’re losing species at an alarming rate and human life ultimately depends on biodiversity.

The loss of the temple was very traumatic for our people; now all of life on Earth is at risk. What will you do to help ensure our survival?

Shabbat Shalom,

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July 20, 2019 

 

On the 17th of Tammuz in the year 70 AD Roman legions broke through the walls of Jerusalem which had been under siege for months. In the weeks that followed there was enormous violence; Jerusalem saw pillaging, slaughter and rape of her men, women, and children. Finally on the 9th of Av, the destruction culminated in the burning of the Mikdash, our sacred Temple, our earthly link to G-d. For centuries these three weeks have been observed as a time of quasi-mourning. In the memory of the Rabbis, the underlying cause of Jerusalem’s destruction was not the Roman ambition to conquer the world. Rather, it was because of the zealots.

When I think of how to apply this history to this moment in time, I am reminded of a scene in the movie World War Z. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s basically a zombie apocalypse movie; a disease breaks out which—after killing its victims—turns them into zombies who run rampant, biting other people, turning them into zombies. The world quickly is engulfed with zombies in every city, threatening to end all of civilization. The main character is an epidemiologist played by Brad Pitt. For some reason he travels to Israel and finds himself in Jerusalem. They’ve built a new wall around the Old City to keep the zombies out. The scene I’m thinking of is when the zombies figure out how to use their bodies to build a giant ramp so that other zombies can scale the walls; when the first zombie jumps over the wall, it’s game over. The city is lost.

Thankfully, the zombie apocalypse is not a real thing. That is to say, it is not literally true. The 1994 hit single, “Zombie” by the Cranberries, is a commentary on religious/nationalist violence in Ireland. The youth who get sucked into participating in the conflict are likened to zombies: unfeeling, uncaring, unable to think or understand the gravity of what they’re doing. So we do have zombies, in truth. They are the people in the U.S. who gun down large crowds at concerts and other public events. They are youth who launch rockets or throw Molotov cocktails. They are the nationalist thugs who roam the streets of Europe looking for dark-skinned people to intimidate. They are all spreading the disease and right now the world does not have a strategy to combat it. The walls are breached.

I conclude with an open-ended question. What is the vaccine for this disease…?

Shabbat Shalom,

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July 13, 2019 
 

 Earlier this week I was reading some space news—because I read space news—and learned that a group of scientists have been working to determine the viscosity of hot gas in galactic clusters (a galactic cluster is a group of galaxies bound together by gravity, dark matter and the super hot (millions of degrees) gas between them. In measuring the viscosity of this gas their hypothesis would be that either “like milk” or “like honey”. It turns out the cluster they were studying appears to have a viscosity more like milk, which is less thick than they were expecting.

I found it curious to refer to superheated gas in this way, given the origins of the metaphor—our Torah. At the burning bush, G-d tells Moshe of the mission to bring the Israelites to the land of their fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey. In last week’s portion, Dotan and Aviram, allies of Korach in his coup, charge Moshe for taking the Israelites OUT OF a land flowing with milk and honey (erroneously referring to Egypt) and into a desert.

The expression “flowing with milk and honey,” in the literal sense, refers to the physical capacity of the land to provide sustenance. The deeper truth behind it is that true sustenance is the pure light of G-d, Divine beneficence as it says in Deuteronomy:

“[G-d] fed thee with manna, which you knew not, neither did your fathers know; that [G-d] might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that flows out of the mouth of the Lord does man live.” (Deut. 8:2-3)

Dotan and Abiram failed to realize that the sustenance was always flowing to them at every moment. The reference to milk and honey in the Rabbinic and later in the Kabbalistic and Hasidic writings is in the manner of this great luminosity—like superheated plasma in a distant galaxy, only its origin is beyond the physical universe entirely.

One of the big lessons of the wilderness is that G-d is always providing us with resources and solutions we need. The only lack that we feel is our inability to share and to receive and enjoy those resources.

Shabbat Shalom,

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July 6, 2019 
 

We are now in the month of Tammuz. It’s a relatively quiet time in the Jewish calendar, with no major holidays or celebrations. The name Tammuz comes from the Akkadian Damu-zid (Sumerian, Dumuzid), which is the name of a Mesopotamian god of heat and fertility. This is alluded to in the book of Ezekiel, And he brought me to the opening of the northern gate of the House of G-d and behold the women were weeping for Tammuz. The prophet remarks that Israelite women have attached themselves to idolatry and are worshipping Tammuz.


What lesson can we draw from this in July 2019? As much as we love the summer, especially in Canada where the winters are long and harsh, we must acknowledge that summer is dangerous. Heat, sun, aquatic activities, and alcohol (often present at BBQs and such) present the obvious physical dangers that many are not sufficiently cognizant of. Beyond this, there is a spiritual danger present. We all have beautiful, luminous neshamot shining outward from within us, but the more external sunlight, physicality, and external pleasure we immerse ourselves in, the harder it is to evoke our inner light. When the pursuit of fun in the sun becomes paramount, we often lose track of our
spiritual life.


I love summer just as much as the next guy, but the cycles of our calendar are there to remind us to keep our eyes on the ball. Enjoy the fun in the sun, but always bring your soul into the picture. Wherever you are, be safe. Use plenty of sunscreen, wear a hat, and stay hydrated.

Shabbat Shalom,

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June 29, 2019 
 

This week I would like to share with you a few words about my late father-in-law, Avrum Horowitz z”l which I shared on Shabbat in the context of Parashat Beha’alotekha. The parasha discusses the consistent daily practice of lighting the Menorah in the Mishkan, the moving Temple in the desert. Aharon and his sons, the Priests, were responsible for this daily task. Today we do not have a physical Menorah, but we have something much more vital and basic which is our internal Menorah, the lamps of our souls, our neshamot. Our sacred calling is to ensure, through consistent daily practice of mitzvot, the commandments, that the lights of neshamot shine as brightly as possible into the world and to ignite other Menorot in the souls of those around us. This is how the world awakens to the sacredness and beauty of G-d’s creation. Beyond the physical and verbal actions of the mitzvot, attitude is extremely important. If we have an attitude of ‘yes’, of ‘can do’, of ‘we got this’, we will become like a clear lens—and all of our words and actions will reflect and amplify that light. If we have an attitude of bitterness, resentment, and ‘me first’, we will become a darkened, cloudy lens—which will obscure and block the light.

Aside from the Chanukiah—which is a facsimile of the Menorah in the Temple—the only other physical lights we light are for sacred times (Shabbat and Yom Tov) and for mourning rites (Shiva, Yahrzeit, and Yizkor). These mitzvot are deeply connected to one another, and to the light of the internal Menorah, the neshama. The candle we light for those who have passed beyond this world represents the light of their neshama and its ascension to a realm of peace and oneness with G-d. Those who make Shabbat a priority in their lives feel that ascension on Shabbat. Shabbat recalls the ancient light of Bereshit, the light of Creation, which is hidden in our world; practicing Shabbat helps reveal that light, and teaches your neshama how to ascend to a place of peace and oneness. In that way, Shabbat is the gateway to the world to come, the world in which it is always Shabbat.

My father-in-law Avrum Horowitz z”l, decided to make Shabbat a priority in his life when he was in his 50s. He wasn’t a yeshiva bucher, he wasn’t educated beyond high school, but he knew how to get onto a good deal. And Shabbat is a good deal; the best deal, in fact. During the other six days of the week, Avrum helped others light their internal Menorah by reminding them that G-d cares for them. He was drawn to the underdog compulsively, and he would seek out people who looked sad or lonely, particularly if they were homeless. These would not be one-time interactions; he would go back and look for them and remember their names. He really showed a lot of love to people he didn’t know. He lit a lot of lights, and he took the time on Shabbat to rekindle his own neshama. Through these actions and our memory of them, his soul now elevates to its place above.

May his memory be a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

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June 22, 2019 

 

We are grateful to have Rabbi Corber back at shul this Shabbat. While away, he passed this week's Spotlight to me. The parsha discusses the propensity of the Jewish people to complain. As Beit Rayim's new Chair and Interim President, I enter this role knowing "you can't please all of the people all the time.”  However, I will try!  To provide some insight on this topic, I turn to my memory of our dear friend, Rabbi Chezi z”l. I hope you enjoy his words from 2015.

Larry Miller
Board Chair and (Interim) President



Shalom,

In this week's Torah portion of Behaalotcha, our biblical ancestors are doing something very Jewish. They are complaining about the food.

It seems that Jews complaining about food is almost cultural. You know the story of the elderly Jewish woman complaining to a friend about a restaurant where she ate: "It was doubly horrible," she says. "The food was terrible... and they served such small portions!" So Jews complaining about food comes as no surprise. What is surprising was the basis of their complaint, when they cried out: "Zacharnu et ha-dagah - we remember the fish we used to eat free in Egypt - now we have nothing but this manna to look to." Now you tell me, do you really think the Egyptians served the Jewish people fish during our years of slavery? Is that how you picture the Egyptians treating our ancestors - by serving them gefilte fish? The description that we have of what the Jews ate in Egypt was matzoh, the lechem oni - the poor people's bread. What fish?

It seems that our ancestors in those days fell victim to a syndrome that many of us have to this very day. It's called the syndrome of "the good old days." There seems to be a tendency amongst many people to always picture the past as having been much better than it really was. Whatever is wrong today, they think in their minds, was much better in "the good old days".

My Friends, perhaps we should take a cue from the famous song from the Broadway show "La Cage aux Folles" - "The best of times are now." These are the best of times - yesterday's gone and tomorrow may never be. All we have is today, now.

So let us enjoy and cherish the old and the new. Let us be grateful for all the good that we have in our lives. Rather than complain, let us echo and proclaim the words of our daily prayer: Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu u'mah yaffa yerusheitenu - "happy are we, how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage."

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Chezi Zionce

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June 15, 2019 

OP

This Shabbat will be our last Shabbat with our ShinShinim, Shira and Kochav. It is dizzying how fast the time has flown by. In a short time, these two bright young women have really become a part of our family here at Beit Rayim. They were a regular fixture in our Hebrew school and on Shabbat mornings. Week in and week out, these young ladies shared their hearts and minds with our community, giving us a deeper, richer understanding of the country we all love and support, but which not many of us know. In my mind, the single greatest value of the ShinShin program—and there are many—is that it shows us in a real and visceral way that Israel is not just a conceptual principle of Judaism. So many of us have a caricatured view of Israel: hummus, hot weather and the army. Shira and Kochav, by sharing their beliefs, their personal experiences and their opinions, have shown us that, in fact, Israel is a multifaceted, multilayered, multi-textured biome of cultures all interacting with one another.

What Shira and Kochav have done this year is something quite remarkable and very difficult; to leave your parents and your family at a relatively young age and go to a strange place—yes, we are strange to Israelis—where they’ve had to speak a second language which can be an intimidating challenge. They both have accomplished much here with us; as a Conservative Rabbi I’m beaming with pride that one of them, inspired by our egalitarian tradition, ascended to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah. The greatest accomplishment, in my mind, is the deep bond and relationships they formed with our community while here. This will have a lasting impact on us as well as on them. They will be able to share so much about Canadian culture and liberal Judaism which is of great value to Israeli culture. As they now prepare to enter army service, we will have them in our hearts and minds when we pray to G-d to protect Israel. I hope you’ll come to Shul to wish them lehitra’ot and nessiya tova.

Shabbat Shalom,

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June 8, 2019

OP

Rabbi Corber is out of the spotlight this week. Today’s message comes from Lawrence Fox:

The Torah lists three “pilgrimage festivals”–Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot–when we ascended to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices. These festivals were also known as the shalosh regalim, the “Three Festivals of Foot”. When I was in high school, my teachers always stressed that all of the chagim stood on two feet–all had historical/religious and agricultural roots. Pesach celebrates our exodus from Egypt and the barley harvest. Sukkot commemorates our time travelling through the desert after the Exodus and the fall harvest in Eretz Yisrael. Shavu’ot is definitely the festival of the first fruits – but what historical event does the TORAH ascribe to Shavu’ot? What was special about Shavu’ot that would excite the amateur historian in us? What is the great story of Shavu’ot?

Nothing.

As important as the Ten Commandments are to us, the Torah is loudly, almost thunderously silent as to the exact date on which the Event at Sinai took place. This connection was established by our sages following the destruction of the Second Temple. During this time, our rabbis began to transform Judaism from a sacrificial, Temple-based set of observances to one based on prayer, observance of the laws of the Torah, and centred about communal life and the synagogue.

But Shavu’ot had only one leg – a sacrifice and the harvest. It needed a second leg to stand on. To ensure that we made the transition from the People of the Temple to the People of the Book, we needed a fixed date for when we received that Book, and they gave that honour to Shavu’ot. They also connected Shavu’ot with Pesach, saying that Shavu’ot completes the story of the Exodus, for you cannot have freedom without rules; that way lies anarchy.

And so, Shavu’ot gained the role of z’man matan torateinu, the season of receiving the Torah. Once we were exiled from our land, this became the focus of the chag, and it gained the strength to stay with us a festival.

With the establishment of the State of Israel, Shavu’ot has reclaimed its agricultural side, and once again, stands proudly on two feet, connecting us to history and the natural world.

Chag Same’ach!

Lawrence Fox

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June 1, 2019 

 

This week our tradition guides us to perfect the quality of Justice. Only once this process is complete within the individual can the process then expand to perfect the Justice of the world. Obviously, there is much work that needs to be done before we get there, but today an enormous victory has been achieved.

Rav Daniel Landes, who for nearly twenty years headed the Pardes institute in Jerusalem has publicly granted smicha (Rabbinic Ordination) to an openly gay Rabbinical student. Rabbi Daniel Atwood had been a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, a liberal Orthodox Yeshiva, but despite his learning there had been denied smicha. Rav Landes decided it was time that history be made. Daniel Atwood is the world’s first official openly gay Orthodox Rabbi. THIS IS A WIN FOR THE ENTIRE JEWISH PEOPLE. It is long time that LGBT Jews be recognized in the same capacity as their peers for their passionate dedication to Torah, their assiduous learning and their immense knowledge.

In Rav Landes’ own words:

“I was told three years ago that my giving woman smicha would create chaos and damage them and their families and dumb-down Torah learning. The opposite has been the case,” Landes, who until recently was the longtime head of the co-ed, nondenominational Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, told attendees at the ordination ceremony.

“Here’s the real question. Is our Torah and halachic system so weak and devoid of resources that it cannot be challenged by a new situation?” Citing the verse “The Torah is perfect, restoring the soul,” Landes thundered that “it is a perfect Torah only when and if it restores the soul. That’s what we need to work for.”

As Conservative Jews we applaud Rabbi Landes’ decision and hope that it is the beginning of a turning point for liberal Orthodoxy. We are one people, and this event marks a step towards greater unity. Surely, there are those who oppose it but that is not a concern. In the end, only that which is Truth prevails. And today it has.

As a former and erstwhile student of Pardes, and one of the many, many humble talmidim of Rav Landes, I have always been proud to call him a Rav and a teacher, and today that pride swells yet greater.

Hazak Ve’ematz Libecha, Rav Landes. May you continue to feel the courage you have shown today.

To view the full article, visit https://www.jta.org/2019/05/27/israel/first-openly-gay-orthodox-rabbi-ordained-in-jerusalem

Shabbat Shalom,

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May 25, 2019 


This week, the tradition calls on us to refine the quality of Hod – the gratitude and acknowledgement that is within each of us. Gratitude is key to any spiritual discipline because the more we can acknowledge the goodness which infuses our lives, the happier we will be. The opposite is true as well; it is impossible to be happy if we are ungrateful. Gratitude is a cornerstone of religiosity as one who acknowledges the many gifts they will naturally recognize the Source of these gifts, G-d. The word Hod, forms the essential root of the name Yehuda (his mother Leah named him that as a way of saying Thanks to G-d) whose tribe eventually becomes synonymous with the whole Jewish people. Thus, to be a Jew, to be a Yehudi is to be a ‘thanker’. Indeed, we find that the elemental unit of Jewish worship is a bracha, a blessing which is a way of thanking G-d. Jewish law requires that we recite blessings not only for those things which are good but also for our misfortunes. In addition, we recite blessings when performing mitzvot in order to cultivate gratitude for being on the Jewish path to begin with. Traditionally, the first thing we say upon opening our eyes in the morning is Modeh Ani, thank you G-d for giving me another day.

Many of us live our lives only dimly aware of the fact that each day is a gift; we may not be depressed but we go about our days in sort of a dull stupor, not particularly upset or happy about anything. If this is you, try something: make a list of everything you’re grateful for today, and you will almost immediately find yourself in a happier mood.

Shabbat Shalom,

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May 18, 2019 

 

In our Omer counting cycle and its concomitant spiritual exercise—the tikkun ha-middot, repair of the emotional/spiritual infrastructure—we are now in the week of Netzach—which means “endurance, eternity, and victory.” In humans, Netzach is the quality we employ to “keep-at-it” on long term projects, to persevere against obstacles and setbacks. For G-d, Netzach manifests as the constancy of forces which drive the universe, the quality of energy (gravity, magnetism, or nuclear) in the cosmos which cannot be destroyed; it can only be converted into another energy form.

For Netzach to function properly, it has to be counter-balanced by its opposing forces, namely Hod, which relates to acknowledgement and gratitude; there is a time to build and a time to stop and appreciate, a time to speak and to time to listen. Netzach, let’s call it your spiritual stamina, also needs to be founded on kindness, discipline, and balance before it can properly manifest.

I often think of the middot in the Omer count as both instructive and descriptive. There is instruction: to examine where our motivation comes from, are we driven by positivity or negativity? Are we balanced in our application or do we fire at 110% and then fizzle out? There is a descriptive element: Netzach is simply happening right now; it’s flowing through the cosmos and, if we’re open, we can receive it for our own benefit. One example is the Toronto Raptors’ buzzer-win Sunday night which eliminated the 76ers, a team against which I have personal bias, so yay! The electro-static vibration in the room from the fans, the kinetic energy which made the ball bounce four times on the rim before going in to finish off the 76ers, if that isn’t Netzach—victory manifested in physical reality—I do not know what is. As I write this, I do not yet know the outcome of Game 1 against the Bucks, but regardless, I hope we can all tap into the positive energy of Netzach while it is flowing. 

Shabbat Shalom,

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May 11, 2019 


This past week I attended the Rabbinical Assembly’s annual conference which took place in Montreal this year. Over 100 Rabbis from all over North America, Latin America, and Israel gathered for three days to share their ideas and experience with one another. As I write this, I am still at the conference and it has been an exhilarating and uplifting experience so far.

One very powerful moment took place at the end of Shacharit on Monday morning, and by the end of the service the room was packed with nearly every rabbi in attendance. A minyan of one hundred rabbis is a sight to behold---and a sound to be-heard! When one hundred people are listening intently to the words of Kaddish, and in unison, with kavvanah (focused intention) respond “Amen Yehey Shmey Rabah…” there is a palpable force that can be held. That force is what we call ruach; and it’s something we Rabbis care very much about cultivating for our communities because we know that this is what people are looking for. They’re looking for an experience where they too can feel the force of ruach in the prayer service.

Later in that day I attended a workshop called, “A Taste of Jewish Meditation” led by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer who was in fact trained for his Bar Mitzvah by Rav Chezi Zionce z”l and is now the head Rabbi at the Shaare Zion in Côte-Saint Luc. I myself have been practicing regular meditation for twenty years, more than half my life, so why did I attend this session and not another topic, maybe something I didn’t know much about? It turns out that Rabbi Glazer had a lot to say on the question of cultivating ruach in modern Conservative prayer spaces. Rabbi Glazer’s thesis is that Jewish meditation is a technique intended to prepare us for prayer. The implications of this are profound. According to most interpretations of the Mishna, a proper state of mind in which to enter prayer—every day, three times a day—is the state of mind which results from a period of meditation, 20 minutes or more. If we were to start a regular meditation program at Beit Rayim, the ideal time would be half an hour before the morning service begins.

The challenge we face is: how do we cultivate a feeling of ruach and intention in our prayer spaces? One seemingly minor but very impactful change you can make is, when you are about to enter the sanctuary, stop; remember that you are entering into a holy space and take 30 seconds to clear your mind and set your intention to pray and speak only of holy things. Chit-chat and schmoozing can also be a positive and holy thing to do in  the right time and place—it is good to care for and support one another—but setting this intention in the beginning can help us to stay focused on the big picture, why we’re here, what we’re doing here. I hope you’ll give this a try, and if you’re sitting in synagogue at this moment, try it now!

Shabbat Shalom,

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May 4, 2019  

 

At the closing of Pesach, we again brought out Shabbat to learn sad news from San Diego. Another young anti-Semite, likely a white supremacist, entered a synagogue and shot four people including the Rabbi. One person, Lori Gilbert-Kaye, was killed in the attack.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, one of the victims, was giving his sermon when he was shot in the hand. He lost three fingers and would have lost his life had the attacker’s weapon not jammed. After being attended by paramedics, the Rabbi FINISHED HIS SERMON and told his congregation to stand fast, hold firm and not give into fear or anger. He asked instead that we perform acts of loving-kindness in response to this tragedy. What a truly remarkable man and a genuine reflection of the Jewish response to the hatred, violence and darkness that so often scars the beauty that is life on Earth.

It is normal and understandable to feel fear sometimes, but we must never let fear into the driver’s seat of our mind. It is also understandable for one to feel anger towards the perpetrators and their like, but this must never be allowed to fester into hatred. These things multiply the darkness.

Shimon Ha-Tzadik, one of the eldest sages in the Rabbinic tradition, said “The world stands on three things; Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindess.” When the world appears to be falling apart it is because one of these pillars is slipping. It is most often the pillar of kindness. Show more kindness to others and we will increase the light in this world. This is no longer optional; it’s a mitzvah emergency.

This week we also remember the names and stories of millions of our brothers and sisters who were slaughtered by the Nazis and their collaborators for being born Jewish. Last week’s events remind us that we have not eradicated the threat that is anti-Semitism. In the wake of their martyrdom, we are charged with the vital responsibility to remember their lives, their names, their deeds and their righteousness. By doing so, we distill and clarify their holy neshamot—their holy spirits—and elevate them higher towards the eternal peace and home in the Eternal One. We must also hear, learn, and teach and repeat the accounts of survivors to the next generation, the children and teenagers of 2019 not only so that they know their history and their roots, but because there continue be groups of people who wish to eradicate us. Sadly the danger is very real and knowing these stories could save a life one day.

May the holy soul, Lori Gilbert-Kaye, be bound up in the bond of life along with our brothers and sisters who fell at Etz Chaim Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and along with all of the holy neshamot who were murdered in the Shoah. May they all rest secure in the peace of the Eternal One.

Shabbat Shalom,

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APril 27, 2019 

 

With our Seders safely behind us, many of us fall into a lull for the remainder of the festival. We feel the case for our liberation is open and shut and we become complacent. The truth is, we are not yet out of Egypt. The Israelites cross the Red Sea one full week after the Exodus; thus on the upcoming Yom Tov (this Friday) we will once again read the section from Exodus wherein the Israelites cross the sea. This moment is, in fact, the culmination of all of the miracles wrought by G-d up until now; it was all for this moment. The essential miracle of the Exodus is the parting of the Red Sea.

Even when the festival draws to a close on Saturday, we will not yet be fully liberated. Passover is not a one-day or one-week event. The Exodus is a continual process we must undergo every day of our lives (this is why the Rabbis in the Haggadah tell us that we recite the Sh’ma twice daily). The Seder is an opportunity to engage in that process expansively and recommit ourselves to the ongoing project of liberation. Each year and each day we must extend the boundaries of freedom further beyond our bubble. We must not only see ourselves as freed from Egypt, but we also commit to bringing all Jews, all humanity and indeed all beings into freedom with us.

The tradition of counting the Omer, forty-nine days of counting from the bringing of the Omer (a barley offering on Pesach day 1) gives us a practical means by which we can achieve greater freedom. Each of the seven weeks of the Omer represents a different emotional quality (e.g. kindness), and each day within each week there is a different aspect of that quality which we are to examine. By spending the next forty-nine days recalibrating our emotional and mental infrastructure we can rewrite some of the negative programming that keeps us locked in our own personal cycles. This is the key to liberation, it’s freeing yourself from yourself.

Egypt and Pharoah are much more real than you may think; they exist as a psychological phenomenon within us. The tikkun ha-middot—the repair of our emotional qualities—is the means by which we live up to the commitments we made on Seder night, “…now we are slaves, next year may we be free.”

Shabbat Shalom,

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APril 20, 2019  

 

Passover is a difficult holiday to observe for many people. First off, a great portion of the foods and products we enjoy during the year become unkosher. That alone is challenging enough. In addition, there is a much higher level of stringency toward chametz than to any other kind of unkosher food. We are required to turn our houses upside down removing any trace of leavened products. While some find the cleaning therapeutic, many find themselves frustrated on Pesach and leading up to it. To add to this frustration, Ashkenazim have for centuries observed a prohibition on legumes, known as kitniyot in Hebrew. This includes many types of nuts and seeds as well as rice, corn and beans. This takes even more of our everyday food off the menu, leaving us essentially meat, dairy and vegetables for 9 days. For vegetarians, vegans, and people with other dietary restrictions, this turns Passover into a grueling week much of which is spent hungry. This really is not what the holiday is supposed to be about.

Last Shabbat—Shabbat HaGadol, when Rabbis traditionally address halakhic concerns regarding Passover—I introduced a teshuva (a Rabbinic responsum) which was adopted by the CJLS (Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, a sub-group of the Conservative Rabbinic Assembly). The teshuva, written by Rabbi David Golinkin (one of the foremost Rabbinic leaders of the Masorti movement in Israel), discusses whether it should be permissible for Ashkenazim in our day and age to consume kitniyot on Pesach.

Rabbi Golinkin first provides a thorough and exhaustive analysis of the prohibition on kitniyot. He cites the Talmudic origin, which is very faint and the various Rishonim (medieval Rabbis who codified the Talmud) who observed this custom. No reason for the prohibition was given other than perhaps having to do with the crop rotation in the Middle Ages; legume crops were, in those days, often cross-contaminated with wheat. Golinkin cites several Rishonim, the most prominent of them the Rosh (Rav Yaakov ben Asher, who authored the Tur, which is the source of the most authoritative body of halakha to date, the Shulkhan Arukh) who call this prohibition minhag shtut—a foolish custom—in his own words. Golinkin concludes that the prohibition is, in fact, minhag shtut or at the very least minhag ta’ut—a mistaken custom—and encourages us to abandon it for several reasons:

° Those with dietary restrictions will be able to maintain a balanced diet on Pesach.

° It will encourage unity between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews.

° The excessive stringency of Pesach drives many to abandon the observance altogether and eat hametz.

To have this on our head is grossly negligent of our duties as Jewish leaders.

I applaud Rabbi Golinkin’s teshuva and think it has been a long time coming. I myself still do not eat kitniyot on Pesach and our Seder will be kitniyot free. I urge caution with regard to eating kitniyot as it is easy to get products which are in fact cross-contaminated (e.g. soy sauce has wheat). For details or when in doubt, please consult with your community Rabbi (in most cases that’s me).

To see the responsum for yourself visit:
http://www.schechter.edu/rice-beans-and-kitniyot-on-pesah-are-they-really-forbidden/

Wishing you a Hag Kasher v’Sameach!

Shabbat Shalom,

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APril 13, 2019 

 

Last Shabbat we read our final special maftir before Pesach, HaHodesh Hazeh. This is the first mitzvah that the Israelites receive as a nation. This month [Nisan] shall be for you the first of the months of the year. If Nisan is the first month of the year, then the new moon of Nisan should be Rosh Hashanah, and indeed it is one of the four Roshei Shanah named by the Mishnah [Oral Law].

The moon has an enormous impact on life on this planet. The new moon, according to our ancient wisdom, is a powerful moment of renewal for life on Earth. The moon’s gravity sweeps in the tides, which carved a space for life on earth and continues to sustain it. Our bodies, and especially women’s bodies, evolve and develop with the rhythm of the moon.

Every mitzvah in the Torah binding us to the Infinite Source of the Universe and the very first commandment by binding our national calendar to the moon dials us in to the cycle of birth, transformation, and rebirth through which all of life renews itself.

The Gerrer Rebbe (a 19th century Hasidic master) taught that the new moon, and above all the new moon of Nisan, is our gateway to self-renewal. When we access this gateway, we bring renewal not only to ourselves but to all of Creation, the whole Universe.

If we follow the natural rhythms of the Universe which are recorded in Torah, we can regenerate and heal ourselves spiritually and physically. As spring begins and life begins to blossom again, our internal spring is also triggered.

As we approach Pesach, let us bring this intention into our preparation for this extraordinary time of year.

Shabbat Shalom,

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APril 6, 2019 

 

This week I had the honour of being invited to a luncheon hosted by the Right Honourable Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The guest of honour was his Excellence Reuven Rivlin, President of Israel. A number of other Israeli dignitaries were also in attendance. The event was attended almost entirely by Jewish community leaders and politicians from Ottawa, Montreal, and the Toronto area.

The Prime Minister spoke of his admiration for Rivlin and recounted for us his first encounter with the President, who was, at that time, serving under the late Shimon Peres. Trudeau had strong words of support for Israel. He noted that Israel has long been the target of unfair and disproportionate criticism on the world stage. Canada has stuck by their friend, Israel, throughout all of its diplomatic woes, he said, and he vowed to continue to champion his government’s strong stance against BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and antisemitism.

President Rivlin thanked the Prime Minister for his friendship and for his government’s continuing support and allegiance. Rivlin also spoke of his predecessor, Shimon Peres. The future, Peres would say, is far more important than the past. Rivlin told the audience that the mark of a true leader is his willingness to take a strong moral stance. He commended our Prime Minister for his moral leadership, especially, he noted, in a world where moral leadership is not often valued.

Given the beating that our Prime Minister has taken in the media recently, it must have been heartening to receive moral praise from Israel’s beloved elder statesman. Whatever your opinion of our PM, it’s an honour to know that he considers Beit Rayim important enough to invite their Rabbi to this luncheon. Having attended, I have never felt more proud to be Canadian and to be Jewish.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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MArch 30, 2019

 

Thirty days before the Ḥag, we inquire and expound in the laws of the Ḥag —Talmud Massekhet Pesaḥim 6a. This is aתקנה (takanah), a ruling put in place by the elder Sages sometime before the recording of the Mishnah (100 CE).

We are about thirty days out now from the Ḥag in question, Passover. This festival is packed with serious mitzvot with some complex halakhkic issues:ליל הסדר   the Seder evening,איסור חמץ  the prohibition on leaven, and of course קורבן פסח , the Passover sacrifice. Even though the sacrifices have not actually taken place since the destruction of the Second Temple (nearly two thousand years), the ruling was made specifically for the laws of the sacrifice.

Now is the time to ask your Rabbi questions about the three main areas of Passover Law: the sacrificial offering, the Seder rituals, and the ban of ḥametz. There is much to know, far too much to cover unless we start now. For example, did you know you also can’t OWN ḥametz? That means locking it all away for the holiday is not really sufficient. We can get around this by “selling” our ḥametz to a non-Jew; it is a temporary sale which reverses automatically at the end of the holiday. The best part is, the ḥametz can stay at your house even though someone else owns it. Each year, community Rabbis like myself orchestrate the “sale” of their communities’ ḥametz to a non-Jew. This year the Mayor of Richmond Hill, Dave Barrow, has graciously agreed to “buy” our ḥametz.

I encourage you all to sell your ḥametz through the shul and, in doing so, make a small donation to our local food bank. Please contact the office for details. Also, please write to me with your questions on Passover.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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MArch 23, 2019

 

Isn’t this box beautiful?

 

 

Why, yes it is! What makes it beautiful? This box -the contents of which you will have enjoyed this Purim - represents the culmination of the evolution of a process over many years. Beit Rayim has long had the custom of sending every family from the school and synagogue a Mishloaḥ Manot package. This incredible initiative requires a great deal of effort and elbow grease. Each year we strive to improve our process to reduce the strain on our volunteers and our resources; after all this is a fundraiser by a non-profit and proceeds are often donated to other non-profits (e.g. Chasdei Kaduri, POI Food Bank). This year, by using a simple box rather than a basket and cellophane, we were able to simplify and streamline our packing process which, in turn,  significantly reduced the total time needed. It was so much easier for our volunteers to pack, move, and drive these packages around because of this. These boxes, being recyclable, are also a better choice for our environment.


In the Book of Esther, all of the women who were gathered into Shushan, when called to the King’s palace, were allowed to take any apparel they wanted from the Women’s House. They had access to more clothes, make-up, and jewelry than you could imagine, but when Esther’s turn came she requested nothing except what she had already been given. She chose no fancy clothes, jewels or cosmetics and yet the King chose Esther over all the others. This is why we wear costumes on Purim; the internal contents are ultimately of far more consequence than external appearances. We hope you have enjoyed the delicious internal contents of your Mishoaḥ Manot package this Purim. Moreover, we hope you’ll appreciate the inherent value of this initiative and for the mitzvah of Mishloaḥ Manot.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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MArch 16, 2019

 

We have now entered the month of Adar II, during which we will celebrate Purim. The statement משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה he who brings in Adar should increase happiness, is looked upon as a commandment by many Jews. During the month of Adar, there is an increased levity and humour in traditional Jewish communities. People are more inclined to make jokes in ritual settings. It’s like the Jewish April Fools Day, only it lasts a month. This change in behaviour can be very positive and beneficial. As Canadians we tend to be a bit dry and reserved in both our speech and our behaviour. Our  social etiquette discourages excited emotional expression and gregariousness. Most people don’t speak to others in public; they speak only to those they know. This repression of our social nature is unhealthy and can lead to serious problems like depression. The commandment to lighten up is quite necessary for most of us. Life’s stresses, if unchecked, can cause major emotional and even physical health issues. We often are taking ourselves too seriously. Particularly at the end of winter, when seasonal depression is at its peak, Adar comes along and says we should take ourselves and our problems with a grain of salt. It is no coincidence that Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Purim all take place at the end of the winter. There is so much built-up repression and angst that we need some fun and wildness. We need to go crazy temporarily in order to avoid going crazy permanently. That’s part of what Purim and Adar aim to achieve. In a paradoxical way, disorder restores order.

In honour of Adar, I’ll leave you with a joke:

A Rabbi and Minister were close friends in a small town. They would often meet and discuss their problems. One day the Minister came to the Rabbi with a quandry:

“Someone in my congregation stole my bike. I’m pretty sure I know who did it but I don’t want to approach them directly. I feel that would cause unnecessary shame and be counterproductive. How can I inspire this person to return it willingly without confrontation?”

The Rabbi thought for a minute and then suggested:

“Why don’t you give a sermon next Sunday about the Ten Commandments, and when you come to the commandment against theft, you can mention that your bike was stolen? Surely this individual will feel remourse and return your bike on his own.”

The Minister loved the idea. The following Sunday afternoon they met again for lunch.

The Rabbi asked if his idea had worked.

“It did,” said the Minister. “I began to list off the Ten Commandments and when I came to the commandment against adultery I suddenly remembered where I left my bike.”

Shabbat Shalom,

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MArch 9, 2019

 

Today and tomorrow (Thursday and Friday Mar. 7 and 8) are a double Rosh Chodesh beginning the month of Adar II, the extra Adar added in a leap year. All dates of significance which normally occur during the month of Adar in a non-leap year (Purim, Hebrew birthdays and yahrzeits) are, in a leap year, marked on Adar II. That means Purim is in two weeks. Many of us know the song, Misheh Nikhnas Adar, which goes, “When we bring in the month of Adar, we increase our joy”. This line comes from Mishnah Taanit. The full statement actually goes like this Rav Yehuda son of Shmuel, the son of Shilat says “Just as we increase our joy at the onset of Adar, so we decrease our joy at the onset of Av.” (Mishna Taanit 4:6) In the Gemara, the ensuing discussions around this Mishnah, Rav Papa adds: “Therefore, a Jewish person who is in a civil dispute should take the matter to court during the month of Adar when he has good mazal, and should avoid doing so in the month of Av when there is bad mazal.”  Rav Papa here is explicitly commenting on Jewish “cosmic luck” (i.e. mazal), when the stars are aligned to bring us positive opportunities and outcomes. This is in direct opposition to the Talmudic statement, “Jewish people are not affected by mazal” (Shabbat 156a) i.e. Jewish people are not affected by and should pay no attention to astrological influences.

The medieval commentators attempt to reconcile these two views. The Ritva (R. Yom Tov b. Avraham, 1250-1330) argues that the general statement on mazal in Massekhet Shabbat abides with only two exceptions: Av and Adar. The Maharsha (R. Shmuel Eliezer haLevi Idels, 1555-1631) suggests that even though the astrological forces do not directly affect a person’s luck, it is through these cosmic bodies that one’s merit or guilt is channeled to us. R. Shlomo Eliezer Alphandri (1820-1930) taught that the statement “Jewish people are not affected by mazal” is intended to caution us away from thinking that our fate is determined by astrological forces and not by G-d. As long as we are aware that G-d is the ultimate cause of all things, good and bad, we can acknowledge that there is, sometimes, a cosmic energy which does influence and effect our lives. Whatever our sign, whatever our luck, we must know that it always be overcome by our will. Purim is very much about this tension: we cannot allow chance to determine our fate, we must take control. At the same time, we cannot deny that there is sometimes a synchronicity in the Universe that comes to our aid if we’re in the right place at the right time.

Shabbat Shalom,

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MArch 2, 2019

 

As we carry on in Daf Yomi (daily Talmud study) we are still floating over a discussion on the gid hanasheh, the sciatic nerve which is forbidden from eating (the 3rd mitzvah in the Torah)Talmudic discussions on a particular Mishnaic statement such as: Liability for consuming the gid hanashe begins at 1 ketzyit (1 olive in weight) can go on for many dapim. These discussions form closed units called a sugya (pl.sugyot). In the flow of this particular sugya, we have reached the point where the Rabbis in the discussion begin to ‘wax midrashic’:

Rabbi Yosi said in the name of Rabbi Ḥanania: What is the meaning of the verse “A thing was sent at Yaakov and it fell upon Israel” (Isaiah 9). The “thing sent at Yaakov” was the injury against his Gid Hanashe. That which “fell upon Israel” is the prohibition against eating from Gid Hanashe of any beast.” Rabbi Hanania revealed a layer of meaning in the text that was always concealed within that verse. It is the bringing to light of these hidden ideas which makes Torah a living document.

“And a man came and wrestled with him until daybreak” (Genesis 32). Rabbi Yitzchak said, This teaches that a Torah scholar must not go out alone at night. “And he [the angel] said, ‘Let me go for dawn is rising!’” [Rabbi Yitzhak teaches when the angel begged Yaakov to let him go] Yaakov asked ‘Are you a robber or a gambler that you are fearful of daylight?’ The angel answered, ‘From the day I was created by G-d until now I have never been called to sing praise to Hashem.’ Rabbi Hananel’s statement supports this idea, as Rabbi Hananel said: There are three classes of angels who offer praises to Hashem each day; one class says “Kadosh”, another says “Kadosh”, another says “Kadosh ADNY Tzeva’ot”.

Someone else posited: the Jewish people are more precious to Holy One than the Ministering Angels for Israel can sing praise to Hashem at any hour and the Ministering Angels can only offer praise once. Some say, once a week. Some say, once a month. Some say, once a year. Some say, once every Jubilee (50 years). Some say, once in eternity. And the Jewish people can utter the Name after only two words (שמע ישראל ה"  Sh’ma Yisrael Hashem) whereas the Ministering Angels must say three words before they may utter the Name (קדוש קדוש קדוש ה" Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Hashem).

This is how the Talmudic mind works; it is an associative stream of consciousness that flows organically from the subject matter (the forbidden measurements of sciatic nerve) into matters of spirit and prayer. One thing about Talmud is that you would never have any idea what was written in it unless you read it. But that’s why you have me :)  

Shabbat Shalom,

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February 23, 2019

 

We now come to the third mitzvah found in the Torah, starting from the beginning: the prohibition against eating from the gid hanasheh (גיד הנשה), known to us as the thigh tendon and the sciatic nerve. This prohibition, according to Genesis itself, stems from the incident wherein Yaakov is permanently injured while wrestling an angel on the bank of the river Yabok. The angel wrenches his thigh-socket, and for the rest of his life Yaakov walks with a limp. Therefore the Israelites do not eat from the sciatic nerve – Genesis 32:32.

This prohibition applies to all behemot, four-legged ruminant cattle (sheep, goat, cow etc.). The sciatic nerve must be removed in its entirety. The process of removing this nerve is extremely complicated and time-consuming, requiring a high degree of skill and knowledge. Because it is so labour intensive, most kosher butchers must sell the hind quarters to non-kosher butchers in order to make a profit. This has meant that a kosher filet mignon is almost unheard of. In Argentina, which has perhaps the largest meat industry in the world, the technique of removing the sciatic nerve—known as porging—is more widely known and so it is possible there and in Israel to order a filet mignon.

The universe has incredible synchronicity. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my personal practices is to read one double-sided page of Talmud each day. This is known as daf yomi, and is practiced in coordination with other Jews around the world; we all read the same page each day. It just so happens that we are currently studying Massekhet Hulin, which deals mostly with the laws of kashrut. It also just so happens that this week, as we come to this third mitzvah in the Torah, we are currently in the section of this tractate which deals specifically with the Gid Hanasheh.

In this chapter, the Talmud discusses the different factors that must be taken into consideration when selling meat to a non-kosher butcher. There is a clearly-expressed tension between observing the dietary laws properly and ensuring that kosher butchers can make a profit. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria adjures us to be very thrifty with our food expenditures and recommends a pure subsistence diet. Two generations later, Rav Nachman explains that Rabbi Elazar was of a very hearty stock and could survive on very minimal provisions. His generation, on the other hand, were of weaker constitution and can spare no expense on food. He even says one should borrow money to ensure there is food in the house. For those of us who keep kosher, we know this tension all too well.

Shabbat Shalom,

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February 16, 2019

 

Last weekend I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel of Rabbis for a regional USY convention. My colleagues and I had received questions the week before, some of which had to do with challenges facing the Conservative movement, others were about issues that face humanity as a whole. I was so impressed by this group of young people, most of whom were from various congregations, one of whom was from Beit Rayim. These young men and women are very bright and well-spoken people who think deeply and care deeply about serious issues and about Conservative Judaism.

There were a lot of important questions that afternoon but I will share one with you: Should synagogues change tradition to adapt to a more politically correct world? One answer from a Rabbi with decades of experiences was a hard and final “No.” He later elaborated that, “what is politically correct one day is politically incorrect the next day.” Another Rabbi added, “politically correct doesn’t mean it’s correct.”

There are many potential applications and intentions for such a question and it can go in different directions. Are we talking about not circumcising our sons because the zeitgeist of western culture tells us not to? That’s not on the table for me or any other Conservative Rabbi. Are we talking about changing the wording of our prayers to include women (which Beit Rayim does) or perhaps a grand undertaking to degenderize all pronouns in the Hebrew language?

For my money, there are two issues (aside from gender) in Jewish prayer and scripture which chafe against the Western post-modern sense of propriety: the particularism of the Jewish people and the violence of the text itself. These may not bother everyone so much, but nearly all young Jewish people and a great many of the older generation today have a very universalistic and humanitarian outlook on the world. We don’t feel G-d loves or should love our people above any other, but our prayers are written as though we do. We feel everyone in the world has the right to life, peace and security but in our most sacred text, the Torah, we are explicitly commanded to wipe other nations off the face of the Earth, even if they sue for peace.

In my humble opinion, we should not change any of this. Changing the words won’t make the problems go away. Only by retaining the record of the issues which have affected us – which still affect us — can we ever hope to resolve them. We need to have conversations about these things, to struggle with them. We need to find new ways to think about our traditions; hithadshut, constant renewal of the Torah is a task of every generation and is a critical part of keeping our traditions alive. We can do that without changing the words. If someone doesn’t say the matriachs in the first blessing of the Amidah, it doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate women’s rights and narratives in Judaism. Saying the matriarchs in the Amidah doesn’t help the 8 year old girl in Afghanistan who can’t go to school because she’s a girl. When I daven the Sim Shalom bracha, I say bless your people Israel in peace (in Hebrew it works way better) but my kavvanah, my intention, is for all of humanity, and in fact all living beings. This kavvanah though new, is ultimately indigenous to the Torah because we know that G-d created and loves all beings.

Change has always been a part of Judaism as the Torah is an ever-evolving living text, but we must be very conscious and intentional about what we change and why. If we remove everything potentially offensive from the Torah, there would not be a whole lot left.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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February 9, 2019

 

Mitzvah of the Week!

In our long journey through the Taryag (תריג = 613) Mitzvot we last left off on the Mitzvah of Mila, ritual circumcision. This is rather appropriate as I have now fulfilled that very mitzvah as of one week ago. Conveniently, I have also fulfilled the minimum requirement of the first mitzvah found in the Torah, be fruitful and multiply, which is to have one child of each sex.

 

Some further insight into the mitzvah of Mila is the idea that G-d purposely does not create us in a perfected state. It is incumbent on each of us to reach perfection through the performance of Torah and mitzvot. An allusion to this is the fact that males must be circumcised on the eighth day. Why eight? Seven, in Judaism, represents a completed cycle, a finished project. The maximal level of human spiritual potential is represented by the number seven. Eight, then, is one level up from that. Eight represents the transcendence of our prior potential. According to the great Sage, Shammai, we Israelites must be ma’alin b’kodesh, elevating in holiness. Thus, we circumcise our boys on the eighth day, to represent that the circumcision itself is an act of perfection and transcendence of the human form.

Shabbat Shalom,

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February 2, 2019

 

Tu B’Shvat has come and gone. It seemed impossible this year to celebrate Tu B’Shvat here in Toronto. The early beginnings of spring were not felt here in the last few weeks. Most of us are focused on keeping our homes warm, digging ourselves out of ice and snow, and getting around this busy city. Winter has only just begun. Nonetheless, the mazal of Tu B’Shvat, the cosmic forces rising within plant life of this earth, did happen. That aspect of Tu B’Shvat is still active and present with us.

 What is the mazal of Tu B’Shvat about? As I’ve taught previously, in the ancient understanding of Creation, G-d plants reality as a ‘tree’ and the universe manifests by way of this tree. Tu B’Shvat uses the light of the full moon to help us ‘climb the tree’ of reality and ascend to a higher state of awareness.

The Universe expands through four stages: Emanation, Creation, Formation, and Actuation, referred to as the four worlds. In the 16th Century Ottoman Palestine, a hotbed of spiritual growth and innovation, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria and his society of colleagues and students instituted Seder Tu B’Shvat, as a means to climb the tree of reality through the four worlds. Mirrored after Pesach, the Tu B’Shvat Seder consists of four cups of wine paired with four small courses of tree fruit, each stage paralleling one of the four worlds. The cups are all different: red, blush, rose, and white, paired with four different forms of fruit : ones with pits and shells, one with shells, one with pits and one with neither. The progression is towards a state of purity, to the root of worlds. Concomitant to this ‘cosmic’ ascension is an internal ascension through different aspects of the soul: nefesh, ruach, neshamah, and shoresh neshama, the root of the soul.

This practice prepares us for the spiritual liberation of Pesach exactly two moons prior (three in a leap year such as this year). By rising to the root of reality, the root of our own souls, we can come up out of the Egypt of our lives, whatever that may be for each of us. Soon we will begin Adar, which attempts to deflect the harshness of winter with joy and humour. Without joy, we cannot leave Egypt. Let us be glad and joyful. Let us be positive and speak kindly to one another. Hand in hand we can lead one another out of Egypt.

Shabbat Shalom,

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January 26, 2019

 

As many of you know, Chloe and I were blessed with a beautiful baby boy last week. As we make the adjustment to life with a newborn in the house, a number of you have reached out to offer help. We are so grateful for the help you can give us by signing up for a meal or assisting in some other way. Many of you remember how difficult it can be when you first bring a new born home; the whole routine gets thrown up in the air. This happens to all of us, even in the best of circumstances. Now more than ever, I am cognizant of how much more difficult it must be for couples and single mothers who are not in the best of circumstances.

If you are inspired to do a mitzvah in our honour, I would like to direct your attention to one of the many crisis pregnancy centres in the GTA. There are countless couples and single mothers who are in need of basic necessities like diapers and formula. To make a donation or volunteer at one of the centres near you, visit one of the sites listed below. Also, if you know someone who is pregnant and facing a difficult time, please refer them:

http://www.mscpc.ca/ Markham-Stouffville Crisis Pregnancy Centre

https://iamnotalone.ca/  Pregnancy Care Centre, North York

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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January 19, 2019

 

In a few days Tu B’Shvat will be upon us. According to the Mishnah, this date is Rosh Hashanah L’Ilan, the Tree. It held importance in Biblical times as a date on the agricultural calendar of the kingdom. As is known, Israelite farmers living on the land were responsible for tithing their assets on an annual basis to support the Levites and their work in the Temple. It was on the fifteenth of Shvat that farmers would be called upon to account for any fruit bearing trees. Since the destruction of the Temple, Tu B’Shvat faded into obscurity, as tithes were no longer accepted.

During the Gaonic period there is some mention of special piyyutim (liturgical prayers) for the well-being of the trees and the land on this day. In the early medieval period, the Jewish communities of Askenaz observed a custom of eating the fruits of Eretz Yisrael and the seven species. The yeshivot of Worms would apparently give their students a day off, and the teachers would give them some cake and liquor. In the seventeenth century in Tzfat (a culture which served as an incubator for Kabbalah and mysticism), the tradition of the Tu B’Shvat Seder developed. The concept was to mirror the Passover Seder, with the ritual consumption of wine and fruit and with deep Torah learning.

The Torah recognizes trees as a venerable life-form, according tree fruit a different bracha than fruit of the earth. Deuteronomy forbids Israelite armies from using trees as weapons of war if they are fruit bearing (Deut. 20). Beyond the reverence for life and the physical trees, trees have significant value as a function of Torah. Why is Torah called a tree? Because it behaves like a tree. The Talmudic process: the dialectic flow of dispute follows the pattern of a tree. A law can be understood as X or Y, but there can be additional parameters for each understanding, yielding Xa or Xb or Ya or Yb. Multiple binaries produce a ‘branching out’ effect, as we see with trees. The idea of a logic tree, of course, applies to all levels of reality. According to Einstein, every time a decision is made, multiple universes are created, the universe in which that decision was made and all of the potential universes in which another decision was made.

Your family tree is an expression of tree like behaviour within the function of biological reproduction. On a larger scale, the evolution of life from single celled organisms to the world we see today is also expressed as a tree. The concept of interconnectivity between all living creatures, and our dependence on our fellow humans and other life forms is guides us to live and behave with kindness and respect for all beings. To see the other as one with the self is, in the words of Hillel, klal gadol baTorah, the main rule of Torah. To see the other as a competitor whose interests conflict with our own is like one leaf on a branch trying to get more sunlight and water than another.

There are many more teachings in Judaism about trees; I have only now just scratched the surface. The takeaway is that Torah is to be found everywhere, especially in the natural world. If nature can teach us Torah, then the Tree is one of the oldest and most distinguished Rabbis.

Shabbat Shalom,

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January 12, 2019

 

Earlier this week we began the month of Shvat (שבט), most noted for Tu B’Shvat (טו בשבט, the 15th of Shvat). As I’ve taught on previous occasions, there are several active Jewish calendars which run their own course concurrently. Rosh Hashanah is the civil New Year in which Shvat would be considered the 5th month, and the 1st of Nisan (two weeks before Pesach) is the Biblical New Year in which Shvat would be considered the 11th month. The names of the months as we know them do not come from the Torah (the Torah only discusses the Biblical year wherein the months are named by their ordinal numbers, 1st, 2nd, 3rd). The names of all the months actually come from the Akkadian language and were imported into the Jewish custom during the Babylonian exile (586-460 BCE). Shvat in Akkadian means ‘heavy rain’ likely having to do with the Middle Eastern rainy reason.

This year is a leap year, which means there is an extra month of Adar. Why of all the months is Adar the repeated month? In the Biblical year, Adar is the final month, thus it is a logical place to add an extra month. But why do we need a leap month in the first place? As is well-known, we observe a lunar calendar; however, we have a specific commandment to observe the Passover rites and festival during Aviv, the springtime, and the seasons fluctuate according to our Earth’s position relative to the Sun, thus relying on the solar calendar as well. The lunar year is eleven days shorter than the solar year, so if we were to observe a lunar calendar without leap years, the lunar year would retrograde through the solar year (like our Muslim cousins) and we would end up with Passover in winter. (Imagine!)

Since the Gaonic period, the Hebrew calendar is fixed—leap years now occur at regularly slotted intervals and we know every leap year from now until the year 8000. However, during the Rabbinic period, the Rabbinic courts—the Sanhedrin—would determine if and when to enact a leap year. If the summer harvest had a bad yield, the following year would be made a leap year. Alternatively, if the highways leading to Jerusalem were still too muddy on the 1st of Adar for heavy traffic of people and goods, the Sanhedrin would enact leap year immediately, making that the 1st of Adar Aleph. The presumption is that a bad crop meant that the lunar month had retrograded into an earlier part of the season, thus a poorer yield. In the case of the roads, heavy rains meant that it was still winter as Shvat is the month of heavy rains, thus indicating the lunar year had retrograded. 

Much of this goes unnoticed today as we have a fixed calendar which functions automatically with or without our awareness, but understanding the realities which lie behind our calendar are key to understanding how Rabbinic application of Biblical law form what we know as the Jewish cycle of time today.

Shabbat Shalom,

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January 5, 2019

 

Shalom Friends,

I am glad to be back in the office and shul as there is so much for us to do and learn together.

In the second parasha in the Book of Shemot, Exodus, Moshe is assigned his sacred duty to return to Egypt and deliver G-d’s message to the Israelites, to demand of Pharoah that they be released from bondage, and to lead them out of Egypt. The saga of the Exodus is, of course, reminiscent of the Passover Haggaddah, which feels oddly out of place as we read it this week, in the middle of winter.

I have been more than once asked: How come we don’t read this Parasha in the spring time around Passover? The answer is twofold: 1) as a rule, Torah readings for holidays are always the verses dealing with the commandments for those days, e.g. the various Passover sacrifices read on all the days of Passover, and 2) when we begin the Torah reading cycle as we do, after Shemini Atzeret, the mathematical inevitability is that we will arrive in Exodus in early winter. Interestingly, early winter—or the month of Tevet—is essentially the mid-way point between the Sukkot and Passover. 

We Jewish people are in this world because we are on slichut, a mission from G-d. When we left on our mission—the first Passover in Egypt—we were given moadot (meeting times) in the form of three Regalim (pilgrimage festivals, Ḥaggim). These times we are commanded to reconnect with G-d in a direct way, like astronauts checking in with mission control. But because of the Earth’s rotational pattern, and the commandment that Passover always take place in springtime, there is a long stretch between check-ins, and at this moment we are the farthest we will get from either one: Sukkot and Passover. Thus, we read about the Exodus, Moses and Pharaoh, the Israelites and the Ten Plagues, this week so that our spirits are not dulled by the cold and darkness of winter.

Keep your head up, eyes open, and hearts open, friends. The Exodus is every day.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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December 22, 2018

 

Last week, I wrote about the similarity between the Talmud and single-malt whiskey; both being composed of many layers and textures, full of richness and complexity. Both require a discerning palette to appreciate their three-dimensionality. In the course of this teaching, I touched on another similarity: that between Talmud and the Internet. The many layers of the Talmud, in particular those of the medieval scholars Rashi (1040-1105, Provence) and the Tosafits (12-13th centuries, Germania) create “links” to multiple other sources: scripture, mishnayot, midrashot, and between various sections and tractates of the Talmud itself. What arose from these links is something academics now call intertextuality, a state of relationality or entanglement between two texts; one text influences the interpretation of the other and vice versa.

Hyper-texting occurs at the earliest layers of the Talmud but becomes increasingly prolific in the late medieval or Renaissance period. With the advent of the printing press, the Talmud became widely published with commentaries in the margins in the fashion to which we are accustomed. Also widely published were the halakhic codes that developed from the latter layers of commentary. One shortcoming of the codes was that, by and large, they do not cite their sources in the Talmud. Eventually, one scholar by the name of Rabbi Yehoshua Boaz ben Shimon Barukh (d. 1557, Italy) created a gloss which cross-referenced every law stated in the Talmud to its corresponding location in three major codes of his time: the Shulkhan Arukh, the Mishnah Torah, and Sefer Mitzot HaGadol. This colossal project extended the Talmudic internet far beyond its borders. With the typical books found in a Beit Midrash or a Yeshivah one can “surf” the Torah by following links from one text to another and back.

The Torah is called a Tree of Life because it is alive; it is every growing and expanding with each generation adding its own commentaries and elements. It is also interconnected, the way all the leaves on the tree are connected through their branches and boughs. The internet is also similar to a tree, having pages that branch out from a main page. In terms of the internal structures and patterns the Talmud can be thought of as the world’s first internet. Then again, following that logic, the original structure is laid out in a tree which predated humanity by millions of years.

Shabbat Shalom,

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December 15, 2018

 

This past Shabbat we celebrated our annual Kiddush Club Shabbat. In honour of this occasion, I shared a D’var Torah on the similarity of Torah to whiskey. You can download a PDF of the handout I used here. The Talmud, while appearing to be a uniform document, is actually composed of many layers. For those who missed it (or for those who enjoyed more than one whiskey afterwards and can’t remember what I said):

The Mishnaic layer (200 BCE-200 CE) is the foundational document containing the Oral Laws passed down from generation to generation. They contain numerous and conflicting opinions of how to practice Torah laws, some of those opinions are unclear in their specificity. Thus the Gemaraic layer (200-600 CE), which comprises a 400 year debate among the students Mishnaic scholars, attempts to explain the Mishna’s meaning, identify the ruling opinions, and harmonize any contradictions. The process is left open-ended with many questions unresolved and without clear ruling opinions. The result is a fluid document which circumscribes the question of how to think Talmudically. The “answers” are variable. Thus, only one who had mastered the Talmud sufficiently was fit to issue rulings on halakhic questions (e.g. when is candle-lighting? Is this chicken kosher?). Those who had mastered it were called Gaonim (geniuses) and during the Gaonic period (600-1000 CE) they received hundreds of questions from Jews throughout the “old worlds” on such questions. During the Medieval period their responses were collected and anthologized into what is now called Responsa literature. Out of this literature, Medieval scholars such as Maimonides developed the first codes of Jewish law (e.g. the Mishnah Torah and the Shulchan Aruch).

On the actual page (daf) of Talmud, one can see both the Mishna and Gemara layers in the center of the page (in the large text). The Talmud itself is the Mishnah plus the Gemara. On the inside of the page we have the commentary of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, Provence). This commentary revolutionized the study of Talmud, making the meaning of the Talmud clear and accessible. However, every translation is an interpretation, and there is, as the Talmud shows us, always more than one way to understand a passage.

Thus on the outside of the page we have the commentary of the Tosafists, who often disagree with Rashi and bring exhaustive proofs to make their case. Sometimes they agree with him. This aside, the Tosafists, (who are writing more than a century later from within a German Talmudic culture) have an entirely different interest from Rashi.  While Rashi is content to explain the meaning of the words on the page, the Tosafists take issue when Rashi’s understanding contradicts the Talmud in other places. The Talmud itself contains 20 tractates and Rashi treated each one as its own independent ecosystem. For the Tosafits, the Talmud is a unified document and must therefore present a uniform message. In their endeavour to resolve intra-Talmudic conflicts, the Tosafists are simply continuing the work of the Talmud itself: interpreting and re-interpreting until it makes sense.

In the outer layers of the page we have other, later commentaries. The commentary of Rabenu Nisim Gaon is a short-hand version of the Talmud which relays only the halakhic outcomes (the “answers” which were sought in the Medieval period, later becoming the codes). The Ein Mishpat Ner Mitzvah is a project of Rabbi Yeshua Boaz b. Shimon Barukh which links the laws stated in the Talmud to their corollary citations in the major law codes.

When you are looking at a daf of Talmud, you are not looking at a uniform statement. You are looking at a multilayered, three-dimensional object. A sheet of Talmud is a time machine that can transport you through three millenia of Jewish scholarship. Through it, you can witness the maturation of an idea, much like one can appreciate the many layers and texture of a fine aged whiskey. You can taste the spirit of the plant and the oak in which it was aged. You can enjoy the richness and complexity. That is Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

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December 8, 2018

Chanu Koh

In his writings on Chanukah, the Gerrer Rebbe—Reb Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter—breaks the word,חנוכה  Chanukah into two separate wordsחנו כה  Chanu koh, which means, “they shall camp here.” This alludes to the time when the Jewish people dwelt in their rightful place, our ancestral homeland. It was when we lived in Eretz Yisrael, that we merited to receive the rest of Shabbat and the Yamim Tovim. It is not just the physical space, but the closeness to G-d—who is calledהמקום  the place—which gave us access to the spiritual revitalization which comes through honouring this sacred time.

The true miracle of Chanukah (and Purim, concomitantly) is that even after the Temple was destroyed and we were uprooted from our land, forced into exile in strange and distant lands, stripped of our cultural autonomy, we still have a way to connect to ourמקום  our place. Although it is through darkness and haze, we can feel the rest and security of Shabbat even during the week. Even in the midst of our exile, in a land, time and culture so distant that our ancestors could scarcely fathom, the light of Chanukah opens a gateway for that original light to shine through into our time. If we think of our traditional paradigm—we have Shabbat, light, Eretz Yisrael on one side, and the six days of the week, darkness, and the exile on the other—Chanukah is the vehicle whereby we can shine the light of Shabbat into the six days of the week.

The Hasidic masters all teach that the purpose of Shabbat is to enlighten us to the divine reality of the universe at all times, not just on Shabbat. The purpose of Havdalah, of quenching the flame in the wine, is to transfer the elevation and spiritual refinement of Shabbat into the coarseness and physicality of the week. Chanukah comes once a year as a potent catalyst in this task by literally shining lights for an entire weekly cycle, thus illuminating all of the days.

As we near the end of this special festival, contemplate and meditate on this as you light your candles—allow the light of Shabbat to enter the weekday and allow the Chanukah lights to open a portal for you to connect to the same place, the same מקום as your ancestors all those centuries ago.

Chanukah Sameach

Shabbat Shalom,

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December 1, 2018

 

Today in Jewish History

Today, Thursday November 29th, is a little known national holiday in the State of Israel. On the 29th of November 1947 the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of the Palestine Partition Plan, paving the road for the Declaration of the State of Israel the following year. The festivities of the 29th of November, since Independence, were overshadowed by the exuberance of Yom Ha’atzma’ut, but it is still an official holiday which marks a critical step forward for the emergence of the Jewish State. There is a street in Jerusalem named for this date, כט בנובמבר   Kaf Tet b’November which I lived very close to when I lived in Israel. It’s a quiet street in a residential neighbourhood.

Today is also the 21st of Kislev. According to Megillat Taanit,  on this date in the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great met Shimon HaTzaddik, the High Priest of the Holy Temple. Shimon feared that Alexander would destroy Jerusalem, so he went out to meet him before he arrived at the city. Upon seeing the High Priest, Alexander made the rare move of dismounting and bowing. When asked to explain his actions, Alexander said that he'd previously seen the High Priest in a dream. Alexander interpreted this vision as a good omen and thus spared Jerusalem, peacefully absorbing Israel into his growing empire. In gratitude, the Sages decreed that the Jewish firstborn of that time be named Alexander -- which remains a Jewish name to this very day.

Interestingly, there is upcoming date in the Gregorian calendar which bears import in the halakha: starting on December 3rd, we switch to the winter nussach (wording) of the eighth blessing in the Amidah (מברך השנים Who Blesses the Years [for crops]). During the summer months we say ותן ברכה and give blessing upon the earth and during the winter—starting December 3rd—we say ותן טל ומטר  and give dew and rain upon the land. This may call to mind the second blessing in the Amidah. In that blessing, we say מוריד הטל Who causes dew to fall in the summer and משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם Who causes the wind to blow and rain to fall in the winter. However, these statements are declarative as opposed to the eighth blessing wherein they are petitionary. Another distinction is that the shift between winter and summer nussachot for the second blessing occurs on Hebrew calendar dates (Pesach and Shemini Atzeret) whereas the nussach in the eighth blessing shifts from summer to winter on a Gregorian calendar date December 3rd . This is in part because the Rabbis of the Talmud understood the seasons to work according to the solar calendar, thus the Gregorian calendar was needed.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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NOVEMBER 24, 2018

 

Last week we had our first in a three-part series on Jewish Meditation, something about which I am quite passionate. We had a great turnout, more than ten people. Many came to the class curious as to what exactly constitutes Jewish Meditation. There is actually a long history of meditative practices and techniques going back centuries. Many of the ritual practices in general were based originally on something like a meditative technique.

One of the most overt references to meditation can be found in Mishnah Brachot. The Mishnah is discussing the proper mind-state which one must cultivate in order to pray:

One may only approach the Divine in prayer with a serious mindset. The early pious ones would sit for an hour before praying, in order to direct their minds to the Place. –Mishnah Brachot 5:1

This Mishnah features a rare illustrative reference to the ‘early pious ones’ who would ‘sit’ for an hour in order to cultivate the proper mind set for prayer. The verb שוהין shohin really has no proper English translation, aside from ‘sit’ or ‘stay’. It conveys the sense that these individuals would sit still in silence to clear their minds before prayer. This is most likely describing a type of meditation practice that existed in the Second Temple Period. Other techniques are referred to, sometimes overtly and sometimes in cryptic form, in a wide range of texts spanning over a thousand years. Over time, the rituals became isolated from these practices and now we’re left only with the shell, the exterior ritual Jewish practices.

The etymology of the word ‘meditation’ is Latin. Medi means ‘centre’ so to meditate is to centre one’s self or to find one’s centre. In Jewish religion and philosophy G-d is our centre. Thus, Jewish Meditation is a means to approach the Divine. The specific technique we’re using in our course is called ‘Breathing the Name’ and it aligns our breath with the Name of G-d. Connecting to G-d is not just a religious act; it is one that can benefit our mental, emotional and even physical health, as it says I align myself with you, G-d, and you heal me.—Psalm 30.


Jewish meditation opens us up to the spirituality that is already deeply infused into Jewish life. Everything from Kashrut, candle lighting, and counting the Omer are intended to help us cultivate deeper mindfulness and awareness. Taking a few minutes each day to focus on your breath also does a lot for your health.

If you aren’t able to join us next Monday for our final class in the series but are interested in learning, we would love to offer this again in the future so I hope you’ll let me or Cheryl know.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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* The Mishnah is the main written record of the Oral Law. It is divided into six orders (sedarim) and twenty-four tractates (massechtot). The first tractate is called Brachot – Blessings, as it deals mostly with prayer and ritual.

November 17, 2018

 

In response to the devastating gun violence we’ve seen in the United States in the last two weeks, my message on Shabbat morning has been about the need to counter darkness with light. In one of my teachings I expounded on a verse from Proverbs נר מצוה ותורה אור a mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light. The study of Torah—what you’re engaged with at this moment—illuminates the human soul. The individual commandments we perform—mitzvot—traffic that light into the world. This is one of the reasons why I’m writing on the Taryag Mitzot, which enumerates and explains all 613 commandments found in the Torah; the more exposed to mitzvot we are, the more light we can channel into the world.

The second mitzvah in the Torah comes from Parashat Lech Lecha: “every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10). Circumcision—brit milah—is to take place on the 8th day of life, even on Shabbat and Yom Tov.  In order to be valid, the circumcision must be performed with the intention of bringing the child into the covenant—brit—of Avraham. It is for this reason that male converts who are already circumcised must undergo hatafat dam brit, drawing of blood for the covenant, upon conversion.

Rav Kahan relates the insight that one of the principal messages taught by circumcision is that we are not born perfect; perfection is achieved through our own efforts. My teacher, Rabbi Bradley Artson, teaches that the covenant is inscribed on the male sexual organ in order that Jewish men should have a constant reminder of our covenant—which obligates us in all other commandments in the Torah—on our most intimate and private place. Male sexuality is often used as a means to exert power and violence onto the world. Our Torah demands that we exert power and restrain inwardly instead. The circumcision reminds a man that his sexuality is not a weapon, that is should be used for holiness.

There is also great significance in the fact that the mitzvah is time-bound to the eighth day. Why eight? In Jewish numerology, the number seven represents the maximal extent of human growth potential. Eight represents the transcendence of human limitations; becoming supernatural and extending one’s self beyond space and time. Reb Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (the 4th Gerrer Rebbe, author of Sfat Emet, an important work of Hassidic spirituality) taught that in order to transcend time, one must be fully engaged with time—thus the strict requirement of the mitzvah to be performed on the eighth day. Similarly, in order to transcend the limitations of three-dimensional space (the physical world) one must engage physically with Torah—thus the extremely physical requirement of circumcision.

May all of our Torah and mitzvot illuminate the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

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November 9, 2018

 

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I gave a sermon about the word טוב tov – goodness. The main thesis of the sermon is that goodness is hidden in every moment, light is hidden in the darkness. It is our job to find and reveal that goodness every day. I offered my blessing that whatever trouble comes our way, we have the courage and resilience to seek out the light and goodness. None of us anticipated what was waiting for us around the corner. None of us thought American Jews would be shot dead in shul on a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh. But I still believe everything I said on Rosh Hashanah.

Last Shabbat, synagogues around the world were packed to the rafters and it was “standing room only” for Solidarity Shabbat. This would have been enough, in and of itself, to show us that we have the courage and resilience to face down hatred and violence. But what we were not expecting was to see so many members of the Christian and Muslim communities come out to support us. At Holy Blossom temple here in Toronto, three-hundred Muslims came out and formed a ring of protection around the synagogue. This gesture sent a very powerful message that love is stronger than hate.

Sometimes it takes a major tragedy in order to arouse human compassion. It seems, at this moment at least, that the world has awoken to the fact that anti-Semitism has arisen again (it never went away) and is still a very serious problem. Psalm 92, the Psalm for Shabbat, says A fool does not know, and the ignorant person does not understand…When the wicked flourish like grass and evil sprouts up, it is only so that it will be utterly destroyed. Sometimes problems have to get worse before they get better. The culture of hatred and violence in the United States has been building up for years. What we are witnessing now, I pray, is the beginning of the end of that culture, the beginning of a time in which all of humanity sees the goodness and Divinity in one another.

Psalm 92 encourages us to take the long view of the troubles and evils we face in the world. This Psalm was selected by the Rabbinic masters as the Psalm of Shabbat because Shabbat is about transcending physical space and time. When you are in Shabbat-mode, you become aware of this long view; you can see with a clearer vision how the moments of evil are exactly that—moments. You can see that their rise to power is but a blip on the radar screen of time, how they fall almost as quickly as they rise, and how all things are enveloped by שלמה רבה Shlama Rabbah—the Great Peace, and how that Great Peace embraces all things.

The more we can shift our consciousness towards Shabbat consciousness, which transcends the bounds of time and space, and the more we are able to draw that consciousness into our daily lives, the closer we will bring ourselves and our world to that Great Peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

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November 3, 2018

 

Less than a week from the horrible events in Pittsburgh last Shabbat, our pain is still fresh. We are still learning details about the people who were murdered and dealing with a wide range of emotions: grief, sadness, outrage, and fear. The temptation is to fall into despair, but we must not give in to that temptation. Reb Nachman of Breslov—one of our brightest spiritual teachers of the last two centuries—taught that it is forbidden to despair. To contextualize, Reb Nachman lived in Ukraine in the early 19th century, a time of economic precarity and unspeakable antisemitic violence. Of his eight children, two girls died in infancy and two boys died before their second birthday. He had it rough, to say the least, and yet he taught vociferously of the obligation to find happiness and peace and to shun thoughts of despair.

The world is in great need of healers and teachers. In times of great darkness, we must be the light. We cannot let our torches go out, we need them to shine even brighter. There is a verse in Proverbs that says the human soul is G-d’s candle. This teaches that in order for G-d’s light to shine into the world, we must be open to receiving, reflecting and refracting that light. How do we do that? Another verse earlier in Proverbs says a Mitzvah is a candle, and the Torah is light. Thus, when we perform a mitzvah and engage in words of Torah, we are adding light to the world. To come to Shul, to give tzedakah, to study Torah in the so in the face of violence and hatred is a tremendous act of courage and resistance in and of itself. But it can’t stop there, we need to take Torah and mitzvot to the street and our public institutions: we need to standup against anti-Semitism and intolerance for the other in general. A few years ago, a man walked into a place of worship in Canada and gunned down more than twenty people, killing six of them. We must not see this as an attack on others; it was an attack on us. We need to tell the public, as well as our elected officials, our educators, and our business leaders, that we will not stand for bigotry. We need to show up at vigils and rallies not only for our own people, but for all people.

Do not let the events of the past week keep you down. Your energy, your wisdom and your light are needed. There simply isn’t time to despair; we have too much work in front of us. This Shabbat, UJA Federation is calling on all Jewish people to attend a Shabbat service in Solidarity with the victims. Please make every effort to be with us this Shabbat as we come together to pray, eat, and share space with one another. Especially if the events of last Shabbat have left you shaken up and upset, it will benefit you greatly to join us this Shabbat. In addition, if you need to speak in private my door is always open.

May the memories of the righteous always be for a blessing, and may G-d bless all of us to carry out the work of channeling the precious light of Torah into every corner of the Earth.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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October 27, 2018

 

This upcoming Shabbat is Parshat VaYera, in which G-d appears to Avraham while he is sitting at the entrance of his tent. So Avraham is standing in the presence of G-d, which the midrash understands as meaning that he was engaged in prayer. At this moment Avraham then sees three travelers passing along the way and he runs after them to greet them and to invite them to his home to eat and to rest. He breaks away from his private audience with the Creator of Reality in order to show these strangers his kindness and hospitality. From this, the midrash tells us, we learn that Hachnassat Orchim the welcoming of guests, takes precedence over prayer. 

One of the messages I taught on Rosh Hashanah is that when we are in relation with fellow human beings, we are seeing the face of G-d. These strangers who Avraham greets turn out to be messengers, angels of Hashem, who are actually on a mission to test Avraham. He obviously passed with flying colours. But we too are being tested every day. We all have our personal rituals, our preferences, our shtick. We don’t have to let go of it, but we must sometimes must suspend our own priorities in order to prioritize the vital mitzvah of welcoming new comers into our synagogue and into lives. For example, you may have your favourite seat in shul, but you have to be willing to give that up to accommodate a guest. To do so communicates our willingness to be in relation to that person and to welcome them.

There is another message here in Avraham’s actions: he ran after those travellers. He didn’t wait for them to come to him. This shows that welcoming guests is not a passive mitzvah, it requires us to take active initiative. How far out of our way are we wiling to go to make our community an open and welcoming space for guests. Are we willing to sing Adon Olam to a different tune, are we willing to give up an Aliyah to the Torah to someone else? That is the test that Hashem puts before us each and every day.

People and communities are like plants; when they have water they thrive, when they do not, they wilt. Our water is Torah; when we practice and embody the middot—the principles—which are exemplified by our ancestors and lauded by our Sages, we will blossom like the date palm, and will be strong as the cedar –Psalm 92.

Shabbat Shalom,

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October 20, 2018

 

As I disseminate these weekly bits and pieces of my brain, you will now begin to see a wider variety of subjects. Some of them, as I stated previously, will be from Taryag Mitzvot, the 613 Commandments based on Sefer HaKhinukh, others will be about important Jewish scholars, and some will be about general subjects of knowledge.

One area which is in great need of disambiguation is the subject of Kabbalah, a term which has come to mean the study of Jewish mysticism in general. The word Kabbalah comes from the root קבל to receive. Generally, this term is used to refer to the whole Jewish tradition and practice which we have received from our ancestors. In recent centuries it has been applied somewhat exclusively to Jewish mysticism. David Sheinkin (z”l) author of Path of the Kabbalah suggests that this term denotes a meditative technique used to elicit prophetic, intuitive wisdom which we receive from higher worlds.

Jewish mysticism, according to traditional sources, began even before Abraham. Sefer Raziel purports itself to have been transmitted to Adam through angelic beings. Our purpose is not to evaluate the veracity of statements like these. The earliest known mystical texts which have been confirmed by academic sources are a series of documents which comprise the Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Bereshit, which outline meditative and magical techniques. During the Mishnaic and Talmudic period (100-600 CE) we get two important texts: the Hekhalot and Sefer Yetzirah, which are similar to the texts which precede them. During the Gaonic/Late Rabbinic age (600-800 CE), the only major innovations are the development of a complex angelology and the Ba’alei Shem individuals who would derive ‘synthetic names of G-d’ by manipulating scripture and other holy text. In the early Middle Ages (800-1300) we see the development of Abulafian Mysticism, which focuses on specific meditation techniques based on the Hebrew letters.

At the end of the 13th century (roughly 1290) the Sefer HaZohar, the Book of Radiance, is published. This is an extensive collection of mystically themed texts—gathered from numerous Spanish and French scholars—which model themselves after the Midrash and Talmud and speak in very cryptic, poetic and symbolic language. The publication of this book marks the formal beginning of what we can call Kabbalah.

In the 16th century, when the teachings of the Zohar were already well-known among Jewish mystics, there arose a scholar by the name of R. Isaac Luria. He, along with this teacher R. Moshe Cordovero, has been displaced by the Spanish Inquisition and ended up in Tzfat in Ottoman Palestine. Rav Luria expounded upon the meaning of the Zohar such that it became explicit and understandable to its readers. His
interpretations—Lurianic Kabbalah—influenced all of the work to come after.

Rabbinic authorities, fearing the dangers of Kabbalah, forced it underground where it remained for around two hundred years. Eventually, a young man, R. Isaac Eliezer (The Ba’al Shem Tov) rose to prominence in Ukraine, and founded modern Hasidism, a movement which liberated Judaism from what it claimed were the shackles of Talmudism and Orthodoxy.

My personal interest in Jewish mysticism arose because I already had a predilection for studying mysticism and spirituality of all cultures. I had grown up in a typical liberal synagogue which emphasized ethical values and Tikkun Olam which, important as they are, did not convey a feeling of spirituality. When I learned, as a teenager, that Judaism also possessed a rich mystical, spiritual tradition I was very intrigued and began a life-long journey of discovery which eventually led to my adoption of a much more strict observance of halakha.

One of our upcoming programs is on Jewish Meditation where you can discover first-hand a little bit of what Jewish mysticism is all about.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

 

 

                                 

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October 13, 2018

 

Last week I introduced Rabbi A.Y. Kahan’s The Taryag Mitzvot which is based on the 16th century text Sefer HaChinukh. Some of you guessed correctly that the first commandment, the first mitzvah of the Torah was given not just to the Israelites, and not even strictly to humanity, but to all sentient life: be fruitful and multiply and fill up the Earth, פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ  from Genesis 1:28.

It is particularly interesting that this be classified as a mitzvah for several reasons. Firstly, the Torah does not say ויצו  “and G-d Commanded,” rather, it saysויברך   “and G-d Blessed”. This discrepancy was certainly seized upon by those who wished to differ with the Sefer HaKhinukh’s designation of the mitzvot, but this designation ultimately prevailed. A blessing can have a command embedded within it, after all. This changes how we view commandments as well as how we view blessings; the two are interconnected. 

I find it intriguing also that the commandment was given to all sentient beings: tiny fish and insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals, whereas humans are they only ones who could understand the words. This indicates that this mitzvah-blessing was given through non-verbal means. The ability, instinct, and drive to procreate is hardwired into every living organism. It’s in our DNA. Even humans, who could understand the words, did not have to be told. We are plenty interested in doing it without religious imperative. What this mitzvah does is turn the mundane, physical act of sexual reproduction into a form of worship. It also enshrines procreation with importance, such that no religious authority can come along and say we should remain celibate. G-d used the Torah to write our DNA, so in that way, the imperative to have children is built into us.

It is problematic, however, for us to apply this mitzvah to biological procreation exclusively. Many people may wish to have children but are unable to do for any number of reasons, be it their medical or general circumstances. Same-sex couples and others can adopt or use surrogacy, but this does not really solve our problem. The fact is some people, despite their willingness, will not manage, or perhaps do not even want to have children. The Rabbis were well aware of this problem. Many of them, devout and pious as they were did not have children of their own. It was well-accepted many centuries ago that having students was a means by which one can fulfill the mitzvah of be fruitful and multiply. Through teaching others, we pass on our knowledge, and our wisdom. The transmission of Torah knowledge and wisdom is what makes having children an act of holiness for Jewish people. Thus, when you are able to do that without biological children, you have fulfilled the mitzvah. Transmitting our DNA, while necessary for life to endure, is no more holy than a male fish fertilizing millions of eggs on a riverbed. It can be done with no thought and no commitment to deal with the consequences. Being a guide or a mentor to another person is arguably an even better way to fulfil this mitzvah.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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October 6, 2018

 

That’s it! The High Holidays are over. We gathered on Simchat Torah, unrolled a Torah scroll, danced and celebrated our three-thousand-year relationship with G-d which is conducted through the medium of this magnificent text.

But wait a minutedoesn’t Shavuot celebrate the Torah as well? The difference between Shavuot and Simchat Torah is simple. Whereas on Shavuot we celebrate our receiving Torah, on Simchat Torah, we celebrate something different: our study and engagement with Torah. This engagement happens through a number of means, including the weekly Torah and Haftarah readings and regular study. The more time you spent being עוסק בתורה -- occupied with Torah, the harder you danced on Simchat Torah.

In the spirit of renewing and restarting this Torah engagement, I will begin us on a journey which will expose us to a multiplicity of Jewish scholars and texts throughout the ages. The first such text we will encounter is Rabbi A.Y. Kahan’s The Taryag Mitzvot. Taryag (תרי"ג) is the Hebrew notation of the number 613. Rabbi Kahan’s book is a modern facsimile of Sefer HaKhinuch, which in the 16th century was credited to Rabbi Aaron HaLevi (1235-1290). Whether Rav Aaron actually wrote Sefer HaKhinuch or not, we will never know. This work was the first to systematize the 613 and list them specifically. This was not an easy task as there is dispute, for example, as to what constitutes a mitzvah unto itself and what is a required component of broader mitzvah. The number 613 was first promulgated by Rav Simlai in the Talmud (Menachot 23b).

Before I actually begin introducing these mitzvot amidst these weekly Spotlights, let me ask you: What do you think is the first mitzvah in the Torah?

Send me your guesses via email (rabbi@beitrayim.org). The first one to get it right wins a prize! (No Googling or other forms of cheating.) I encourage you to do this as an exercise: open a Chumash and look for what you think might be the first mitzvah.

Shabbat Shalom,

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September 22, 2018

 

Many of us are familiar with the saying from the Talmud that one should go immediately from Yom Kippur break-fast to build one’s Sukkah. This is really the meaning of Yasher Koach, which does not translate well—literally. Yasher Koach is like saying You should go from strength to strength. It’s not so much Good job! It’s more like That was great, keep doing more of that! Going straight from Yom Kippur to build a Sukkah is going from mitzvah to mitzvah, from strength to strength.

Hopefully, Yom Kippur was powerful, uplifting, and inspiring and hopefully you feel good about that; now another mitzvah is falling right into your lap: Sukkot. The truth is, most Jews are tuning out at this point. Many feel that the process of making teshuvah, and the closeness with G-d that they feel on the High Holidays ends at the final blasting of the Shofar and Havdalah at the end of Yom Kippur. The truth is the High Holidays are not over yet. Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are an integral part of them.

I’m a three-day-a-year-Jew, people say, but it’s not true. Not at the fundamental core of who they are. We were all born with the innate potential to be Mashiach, the innate potential to be holy, and to rise to higher and higher heights of holiness. That’s the whole point of Yom Kippur! You don’t have to be a three-day-a-year Jew. You can transform yourself.

If Yom Kippur is the great transformation, the great awakening, then Sukkot is the follow-through we need in order to sustain that awakening. It brings the high of Yom Kippur down to Earth so that we can leverage our inspiration to shift our lifestyle.

Come shake the Lulav and Etrog with us, come to the beer tasting at my Sukkah, come dance with the Torah. If Yom Kippur has lit a candle for your spirit, don’t let the candle go out, use it to light other candles, and increase the light in our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

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September 15, 2018

 

When I was seven years old, a volunteer from an environmental organization came to my school and spoke about the environment and what we humans are doing to it. I was petrified. Having inherited my mother's propensity to worry about things I cannot control, I became frantically anxious about the environment. What would happen when I grew up? Would we have a world we could survive in? Would people and animals be mutated with hideous disfigurements? Would everything be toxic?

In the last couple of years, these fears have resurfaced as our impact on the global ecosystem becomes more clear. Extreme hurricanes, tornados, deadly heat waves and ice storms are the new normal. Every summer the smoke from the forest fires in Western Canada is so thick that even healthy people cannot go outdoors in BC, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, and Yukon. My fear for humanity’s ability to survive the next two hundred years has turned into something like despair. But more recently, in the past few months, we are seeing a glimmer of hope.

Due largely to media attention, there are now massive efforts underway to limit plastic consumption and to clean up the continent-sized masses of plastic waste that pollute our oceans. Last week, I was delighted to scroll through the news to find this article which explains how the Great Barrier Reef—which was pronounced dead at 25 million years old earlier this year—is showing signs of recovery. This may or may not be due to efforts by scientists to regrow the coral earlier last year.

 

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav teaches If you believe that you can break it, believe that you can fix it. If you stop smoking, your body eventually recovers. Likewise, if we stop destroying our ecosystem, we can—with the right science and technology, the right consciousness and sufficient willpower—heal our world. There are concrete actions we can all take to be a part of the solution, but the solution starts within each of us.

In this time of Teshuvah when we are open to positive change, let us take this news as a reminder that we have before us an opportunity to heal and to repair what we have broken.

Shabbat Shalom,

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September 8, 2018

 

We are standing now at the edge. There are now just a few days between us and the moment of truth, the moment when we will once again come together as adudat echad, a singular union and petition G-d to accept us once again and inscribe us in the Book of Life.

Even for those of us who are not particularly pious, there is a sense of trepidation around the High Holidays; they’re not called Days of Awe for nothing. Some feel a sense of anxiety, a need to get one’s affairs in order, a need to tie up loose ends and clear the air. There is fear. This is a totally normal response to moments like the Days of Awe, which remind us of our mortality and the gravity of our responsibilities.

This mindset can be a positive thing as it can stimulate the growth and soul-searching that are necessary in order for the High Holidays to have meaning. However, it needs to be balanced with the opposite mindset, joy, trust, and love. There is an old Rabbinic drash on the name Elul, the last month of the Hebrew year, the month in which there are now only a couple of days left. Elul in Hebrew is spelled אלול, and drash is that this is an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי I am my beloved’s and my beloved’s is mine. This phrase comes from Shir HaShirim, written as a love song which the Rabbinic tradition understands as a song between G-d and the children of Israel. During Elul, we long for a closeness to G-d. When we can truly feel that closeness to G-d, it is a luminous feeling of being totally loved and supported  Fear and anxiety melt away of themselves in warmth of this light.

On Rosh Hashanah, we will come face to face with our Creator, who is often called King. The King is usually on the throne, up in the palace, surrounded by a wall, and moat with the gates closed, far away in the capital. Right now though, The King is in the field. We have rare close access to our Creator, the source of all life and energy in the Universe. The gates will swing open and we will be invited to the inner chamber. Bring with you only those desires which really matter; your health, your family, your relationships, and your soul. Let everything else, the emails, the bills, the social media, melt away. They will be there when you come out on the other side. For now, our only job is to get closer to G-d, and that means to get closer to ourselves, our true selves, our highest selves.

May 5779 be a year of blessing, health, wealth, and only good things.

Shanah Tovah,

 

                                       

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September 1, 2018

 

In a short time we will gather for Slichot services, which we recite in the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Sephardi communities actually recite Slichot during the entire month of Elul. The Slichot  service is an amalgam of verses, prayers, psalms, and songs all with the central theme of forgiveness and atonement. It was already in existence during the Geonic period (500-800 CE) but communities continued to add components to the service throughout the Middle Ages to produce its present form.

One of the central elements of Slichot is the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (י"ג מדות ) which were first revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai as the formula through which G-d would forgive the Israelites after the worship of the Golden Calf. Another central element is the Vidui, the confession in which we list all of our sins in alphabetical order. Note here that both of these elements indicate that we are seeking forgiveness for ourselves not as individuals but as a community.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) who served as the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of British Palestine was a poet and mystic. He wrote that Slichot is recited not only on behalf of the Jewish people, but certainly for the entire human race. More than that, we recite Slichot on behalf of all beings everywhere in G-d’s universe. There is a long thread of Rabbinic thought which holds that it is not only the Jews who are judged on Rosh Hashanah, but all beings. In light of this, it stands to reason that Jewish communities should seek forgives for all beings, not just their own nation.

Our lives, our actions and their consequences are all interconnected, thus it is fitting that we have a universal means by which we can extricate ourselves from the negative actions we have accumulated. I hope you will find this an inspiring thought with which to enter Shabbat, and I do hope you will join us at Shabbat’s closing for an inspiring Slichot. Details can be found in this bulletin. 

 

Shabbat Shalom, 

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August 25, 2018

 

During the month of Elul it is traditional to recite Psalm 27 at the end of each service. Doing so is part of our preparation for the approaching new year and high holidays. It begins,  G-d is my light and salvation.

Rosh Hashanah is, among other things, the birthday of the Universe, marking the anniversary of the Creation narrative, Bereshit. The first ‘thing’ created was light; not the physical light produced by sun and stars (they, after all, were only created on the fourth day) but a more ephemeral, subtle kind of light. It is the light of Bereshit from which all subsequent created things were formed, thus it is a kind of ‘building block’ of the Universe. Everything around you is composed of it. (As an aside, Einstein’s theory of relativity states that all matter is energy in a condensed form, and some scientists now believe that all matter may be composed of light). Thus, the Torah and science are not far off from one another.

On Rosh Hashanah, it is said that G-d’s light, radiates at a much higher magnitude. This actually begins in Elul, each day the light increases ever so slightly, and this first verse of Psalms is alluding to that. We can benefit from this light through our own introspection. In the Slichot prayers we read the line ה' מחפש כל חדרי בטן, G-d searches all the chambers of the gut. The ‘chambers of the gut’ i.e. the intestines were thought in ancient times to be the seat of emotion; morality was thought to resonate through the gut. The image of G-d conducting a room to room search is reminiscent of bedikat hametz the search for leaven crumbs on the night before Passover. This is really an invitation for us to search inside of ourselves to seek out the source of our own defilements and impurities. The cheshbon nefesh (spiritual accounting) of Elul should include the physical body as well as the mind. Did you know there are more nerves in your gut than in your brain? This adds new meaning to the expression ‘gut feeling’. You know something is true or false, right or wrong because you can ‘feel it in your kishkes’.

Elul is an opportunity to draw the light of G-d’s increased illuminating presence not only into your mind but into your body. This can be very healing on both a physical and emotional level. Take some time this month to open a holy book, a chumash, a siddur etc. whether you are able to read the Hebrew letters or not, gaze softly at the white spaces between letters and breathe deeply.

May the light of Elul bring you increased awareness
of yourself, healing and complete
Teshuvah.

Shabbat Shalom, 

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August 18, 2018

 

Last Shabbat we had the privilege of hearing Raffi Fox speak about his trip to Israel. In his speech, Raffi briefly referenced the arrest of a Conservative Rabbi in Israel and how his Ramah group made effort to express solidarity with him. It occurred to me that some of you might not be aware of this incident, so I thought I should provide some background information as well as my personal thoughts on the matter. 

On July 19th, at 5:30am, police arrested Rabbi Dubi Haiyun at his home under recent provisions to Israel’s Laws of Marriage and Divorce, which stipulate that a Masorti (the equivalent of Conservative outside of North America) Rabbi may not officiate at Jewish weddings in Israel. Since his arrest there has been a storm of protest from the Conservative movement both inside and outside of Israel.

There have been numerous articles and perspectives written in the weeks that have followed. I have provided links to two opinion pieces from different sides of the issue:

https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-07-23/israelis-doubts-after-rabbi-detention-jewish-nation-state-law by Conservative Rabbi Daniel Gordis.

https://forward.com/opinion/407701/stop-trying-to-bring-conservative-and-reform-judaism-to-israel-we-already by Einat Wilf and Ram Vromen, of the Forward.
 

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s outsized influence on the government and control over civil affairs is once again being called into question. This is an important issue, the effects of which have a wider impact than just Jews of non-Orthodox streams. Women, the LGBT community and non-Jews living in Israel are all negatively affected by what is essentially an extremist-religious wing of the government.

It is vital that we support civil, secular, and pluralist organizations and institutions in Israel. Israel is slowly inching away from democracy and toward theocracy and these groups are on the front lines trying to stop that from happening. They are not having much success. This incident perhaps is in indicator that, in the words of Rabbi Haiyun after his arrest, Iran is already here.

While we, as non-Orthodox Jews, are a misunderstood and often mistreated specimen in Israel, it is important that we remain humble and not judge our fellow Jews, even as they judge us. Israel is, and always will be, first and foremost, a place of refuge for Jews who are persecuted minorities in their own countries. If they don’t accept my Rabbinic ordination, they will still accept me. I will continue to love Israel, despite her imperfections. We have to fight the forces of illiberalism and fundamentalism, but not with ego. Only by loving our fellow Jews can we ever hope to heal the sickness that is enveloping us as a people.

Shabbat Shalom, 

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August 4, 2018

 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught expansively on the quality of radical amazement, taking in the wonder that is existence itself. To be fascinated with existence, he said, is the primary religious emotion. I have always found great inspiration in learning of important scientific discoveries, especially those concerned with the nature of existence. In keeping with this concept of radical amazement, some of my weekly writings will feature scientific articles. 

A few weeks ago, scientists discovered the brightest object in the Universe, which turns out to be a Quasar orbiting a supermassive black hole. This object is a staggering 13 billion light years away. Bear in mind that the Universe itself is just under 14 billion years old. The light emitted by this object has reached us only now (which probably means the object isn’t there anymore) and has been traveling basically since the beginning of the Universe. Think about how bright that object would have to be in order to emit light for 13 billion years.

 

How does this relate to Torah? A light that has shone since the beginning of time –does that ring any bells? It is reminiscent, perhaps of the light of Bereshit (Genesis), when G-d said Let there be light. We know that this Quasar is not literally the light of Bereshit because the latter was not a physical light. Yet we can still draw some insight from it. The Torah is called a light. By Torah, I mean not just the physical five books of Moses, but the Primordial Torah, the consciousness from which G-d radiated the Universe into existence. Like this Quasar, the Torah is a light which, though rooted deep in the past can illuminate the present. When we allow Torah to enter our hearts and minds, we can transform ourselves the world around us. As bright as this Quasar is (or was) the light emanated by the Torah, though not visible to the naked eye, is indeed much brighter. The more we study and engage with Torah, the more we will expose the light of Torah which is in all things.

So may we all be blessed.
 

Shabbat Shalom,

To read the article, click here

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July 28, 2018

 

You may have seen a video this week of a 200 lb. rock falling from the Kotel in Jerusalem. By the looks of it the rock fell at least forty feet before hitting the platform which was set up at the foot of the bottom. Luckily, no one was standing on the platform and no injuries resulted. It was noted that this occurred in the egalitarian section of the Kotel, a much older layer of the plaza which actually dates to the first temple period.

A friend of mine (who is, for the record, egalitarian) mused that perhaps this was an ominous sign of what G-d thinks of egalitarian prayer spaces. One of my Rabbinic colleagues had a more poignant comment, "Sometimes I forget that this Wall is just a wall, it is subject to the laws of entropy like all other things." His comment reminds me of a story about the great Thai Buddhist master, Ajahn Cha:

One time Ajahn Cha was walking with some friends through a Buddhist temple in Cambodia when they passed by a statue of the Buddha with a large crack in it.

“Oh what a shame,” said one of his friends said, “it’s cracked.”

Ajahn Cha replied “That it is cracked shows that the Buddha’s teachings are true. It is the way of things that it must be cracked.”

Judaism also teaches that there is nothing permanent except G-d, all other things come and go. It is ironic that the Kotel has become such a phenomenon in modern times. True, it is the closest remnant that we have to our ancient and most holy site, and the historical significance of that must not be understated. For Jews who have never been to Israel, a visit to the Kotel can be very meaningful and impactful. That said, from a halakhic perspective the Kotel is no different than any other Shul.
G-d’s plan, according to Maimonides, was that we evolve away from the mode of worship practiced in the Temple and graduate to new forms. So the sentimentality attached to this place, over which we are now fighting so bitterly with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, is perhaps misplaced.

G-d destroyed the Temple because we ignored one another and worshipped idols. The time has come to stop making an idol of the Temple and start paying more attention to one another.

Shabbat Shalom,

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July 21, 2018

 

On Saturday night we will mark Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, which is the

anniversary of the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Temples. Av is a particularly inauspicious month for the Jewish people. Throughout medieval and modern history, the 9th of Av witnessed numerous massacres, crusades, expulsions, pogroms, and extermination. Tisha B’Av is commemorated through fasting (the only full 25 hour fast aside from Yom Kippur) and the reading of Megillat Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, which is a section of Jeremiah. In this part of the prophecy, Jeremiah bewails the ruthlessness with which G-d has abandoned His people and struggles to understand how we were deserving of such incredible brutality. When staring into the void of human suffering, we too find it enormously challenging to understand how

G-d can allow events like the Holocaust to occur. In the end, there are no good answers to this question. No words can justify it.

Entropy is a fact of the universe; things exist for a time, and then they do not exist. Sometimes this transition is sudden and violent and this is what makes us cry out Eicha! How can this happen?  And there are no answers. In the end, Jeremiah takes some comfort in knowing that there is hope for the future. Like the seeds that germinate and sprout in the ashes and heat of a forest fire, the Jewish culture and our faith find a way to blossom after every

destruction. On the personal level as well, we must find a way to live on and to live well.

In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in your suffering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                       

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July 14, 2018

 

The final portion of the Bamidbar (Numbers), Parashat Massei begins with a thorough recounting of the entire forty year journey from Egypt through the Sinai desert into the Kingdom of Moab (modern day Jordan and Saudi Arabia) right up to their present position on the east bank of the Jordan River. The Israelites are then commanded on how to draw tribal territories and to designate cities of refuge. The Torah does not waste words, so why is it repeating the various legs of the journey? The answer is, you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you are, and you don’t know where you are unless you know where you’re coming from. During their forty years in the desert, the Israelites went through a lot as a people; there were numerous errors and failures on both personal and national levels. We cannot learn from our mistakes if we do not retain an awareness of our past actions.

Our present state, the state in which we find ourselves today, as individuals and as a collective, is a result of past actions. Some of those actions took place hours ago (the food we ate for example), other actions took place decades ago (our relatives migrating through and away from the Old World). Knowing this is critical in understanding who we are and where we’re heading. The parsha does not only gaze backwards; it looks to future actions as a means to redeem the mistakes of the past—each tribal territory would be appropriate to that tribe’s historical experience as well as their population. We cannot be stuck dwelling in the past; we must draw on our experiences and use them to determine the right way to move forward.

May we never be so caught up in the day-to-day that we forget our history, and may we never get so stuck in the past that we lose awareness of the ever-unfolding present moment.

 

Shabbat Shalom

   

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July 7, 2018

 

Last week, our entire community was shocked and saddened by the sudden loss of Rabbi Chezi z”l. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to meet the rabbi and spend a bit of time with him over the past couple of months. I am disappointed that I won’t have the opportunity to learn more from and with Rabbi Chezi z”l, but grateful that so many of you have shared your warm memories and stories. I hope that you will continue to do so.


May his memory always be a blessing.

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Thu, October 29 2020 11 Cheshvan 5781